Colorectal cancer is becoming more common among younger people—however, there are many preventive steps that one can take
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a health holiday devoted to drawing attention to the condition of colorectal cancer, which is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we believe in the power of information. We aim to keep our patients informed so that they can optimize and extend their quality of life—and colorectal cancer is no exception. Although colorectal cancer is a threat, and it’s becoming more common among younger people, there are many things that you can do to reduce your risk of ever getting this condition.
Here’s what you need to know about who gets colorectal cancer, how to identify its early signs and symptoms, and how to reduce your risk.
What is Colorectal Cancer?
Experts often refer to cancer as a state of unregulated cellular growth. This means that cells that would normally die off naturally continue growing uncontrollably instead. This can cause the formation of tumors. In colorectal cancers, the cancerous cells originate in your colon or rectum. They may initially form polyps, which can then turn into tumors, or they may form tumors outright. The presence of tumors can cause problems in your body’s abdominal cavity, and the colon cancer cells can also spread (or metastasize) to other places in your body, causing further harm.
Who Gets Colorectal Cancer?
Certain people are more likely to get colon cancer, including older people and people of African, Asian, or Hispanic descent.
You are also more likely to get colon cancer if you have the following characteristics, according to the CDC:
- A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- A history of colorectal cancer in your family
- A personal history of colorectal cancer or another kind of cancer, such as ovarian cancer
- Genetic conditions such as familial adenomatous polyposis or Lynch syndrome
- A reduced amount of physical activity
- A diet low in fruits and vegetables
- A diet that is low in fiber or high in fat
- A diet that is high in processed meats
- A diet that is high in red meat
- A body mass index (BMI) score within the overweight or obese category
- A history of drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes
It is also possible to get colorectal cancer even when you have no risk factors— experts note that more than 75 percent of people with colorectal cancer have no known risk factors.
Unfortunately, although colorectal cancer was traditionally associated with increasing age, a number of young adults ages 20 to 49 are now being diagnosed with the condition. The rates of people under age 50 diagnosed with colorectal cancer are rising around the world and affecting some races more than others—such as Alaskan natives, American Indians, and Caucasians. Experts believe this may be due to increased sedentary activity, including more time watching television and more inflammatory substances within the diet. Colorectal cancer is even predicted to become the number one deadliest cancer for 20 to 49 years old by 2030. This is why it is so important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer?
Some of the signs of colorectal cancer may be obvious to you, but some may be less obvious. Here is a breakdown of some of the more common things to look out for:
- Painless bleeding from the rectum
- Blood in the stool (either bright or dark-colored)
- A change in your bowel patterns—such as experiencing more constipation after years of having a bowel movement every day
- Pain with bowel movements
- Increased bloating or gas pains
- Abdominal or pelvic pain
- A change in the nature of your stool—including becoming thinner, or pencil-like
While these changes in your stool may cause you to think of the possibility of colorectal cancer, other symptoms may be less noticeable. For example, you may experience weight loss without deliberately trying to lose weight. You may also have nausea, or you may feel like you are getting fuller after eating, even when you’ve only consumed a small amount of food.
How to Reduce the Risk of Colorectal Cancer
The American Cancer Society notes that there are several ways that you can lessen your risk of getting colorectal cancer because colorectal cancer is often influenced by lifestyle choices.
Here are a few things you can do to lower your risk:
- Don’t smoke cigarettes
- Avoid drinking alcohol—or, if you do drink, do so in small amounts
- Stay within an ideal body weight range, as being overweight or obese is associated with a higher risk of dying of colorectal cancer
- Exercise regularly because this can reduce your risk
- Eat a high fiber diet that includes whole grains, fruits, and vegetables
- Reduce the amount of red meat and processed meats in your diet
Beyond making these lifestyle choices, one of the best things you can do to fight against colorectal cancer is to get screened. Health experts recently changed the recommended age for a first colorectal screening test—instead of starting at age 50, it’s now recommended that everyone at average risk for colorectal cancer get a first screening test at age 45. If you have a higher risk of colorectal cancer (because of a significant family history of the condition or because you have a particular genetic condition), make sure to ask your medical provider if you should get screened sooner.
Screening for Colorectal Cancer
Colorectal screening is a critical tool in keeping you safe and ensuring that your life is never disrupted by colorectal cancer. It is recommended for adults between the ages of 45 and 75 years old. When you get a colorectal cancer screening, your provider will look for abnormal growths called polyps that are often precancerous. This can help your provider detect cancers early on before they have a chance to spread and when treatments will be more effective. Often, polyps can simply be removed during screening, effectively preventing them from developing into cancerous lesions. However, according to the CDC, many adults in the US are behind on their colorectal cancer screening—in fact, up to one-third may not be up to date.
When you’re pursuing colorectal screening, you have many different choices, including:
- Stool tests: Three different types of stool tests can help detect colorectal cancer. Depending on the type you select, these tests are either done once a year or once every three years. You may be asked to collect a small amount of stool on a stick or brush when you are at home or to collect an entire bowel movement—after this, you will send the sample to a lab where it will be checked for cancerous cells.
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy: During this test, a thin, flexible tube is inserted into your rectum, and a medical provider examines your rectum and the lower part of your colon for abnormal-looking areas. This can be done every 5 years or every 10 years if it’s combined with a stool test.
- Colonoscopy: During this test, a thin, flexible tube is inserted into your rectum, and a medical provider examines your rectum and your entire colon. If a polyp is found, your provider may be able to remove it on the spot. This test can be done every 10 years if you have a low-risk evaluation.
- CT colonography (also known as a virtual colonoscopy): This type of examination is an imaging study that takes pictures of your colon, looking for abnormal areas. It is usually done every 5 years as a screening tool.
The kinds of screening tests available to detect colorectal cancer have evolved over the years, and choosing the test that is right for you depends on many factors. It’s important to discuss with your provider which test may be best in light of your particular medical history, making sure to ask about the advantages and disadvantages of each option. If you’re worried about the cost of a colorectal screening test, check with your insurance company, as many plans will cover the cost of a screening test if your medical provider recommends you to have one.
Partnering with Lompoc Valley Medical Center during Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are focused on delivering high-quality healthcare information, preventive care, screening tests, and management to all of our patients, including those looking to get screened for colorectal cancer or who have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer. If you have colorectal cancer, our team of oncologists can help you examine your symptoms and identify an effective, evidence-based treatment plan if needed.
To learn more,