March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

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Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. In 2023, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be almost 107,000 new cases of colon cancer and over 46,000 new cases of rectal cancer diagnosed.

The symptoms of colorectal cancer may not be experienced right away and many of these symptoms can be caused by other conditions such as infection, hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome. If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, make an appointment with your primary care provider so the cause can be found and treated, if needed. 

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, that lasts for more than a few days
  • A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that's not relieved by having one
  • Rectal bleeding (bright red blood) or blood in the stool (dark brown or black)
  • Abdominal pain or bloating
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss

Most colorectal cancers start as a growth or polyp on the inner lining of the colon or rectum and is most treatable when found early. Colonoscopy not only detects CRC but prevents cancer as precancerous polyps can be removed during the procedure. 

When colorectal cancer is found at an early stage before it has spread, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 90%, according to the American Cancer Society. Unfortunately, only about 4 out of 10 colorectal cancers are found at this early stage. If the cancer spreads outside the colon or rectum, survival rates are lower. The death rate from colorectal cancer has declined steadily since the mid-1980s, largely due to increased screenings and the modification of risk-factors.

In 2018, the American Cancer Society updated the screening guidelines for CRC to 45 years of age instead of the traditional 50. This was prompted by an alarming rise in colorectal cancer found in people younger than 50. In 2010, the incidence of colon cancer among those under 50 years was 5% and 9% of rectal cancer. Fast forward to 2020 and the statistics increased to 11% of colon cancer and 15% of rectal cancer in those under the age of 50.

Unfortunately, 68.8 percent of eligible individuals in the United States have never been screened for colorectal cancer. The rates are the lowest among the uninsured and underinsured, those with low income and racial and ethnic minorities. In May 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued new recommendations for colorectal cancer stating that people at average risk should start screening at age 45, which requires health insurance companies to cover the cost of the screening at no charge to the patient.

“Starting at age 45, individuals with an average risk of colorectal cancer should undergo regular screening,” explains Kavita Tumma, MD, gastroenterologist at McLaren Port Huron. “There are many options when it comes to colorectal screening, but colonoscopy remains the gold standard. If you choose to be screened with a test other than colonoscopy, any abnormal test result should be followed up with a timely colonoscopy. The colonoscopy allows the physician to visualize the entire structure of the colon and rectum and remove any suspicious-looking areas such as polyps, if needed.”

If you are over 45 and haven’t undergone screening for colorectal cancer, make an appointment with your primary care physician to discuss your risk factors and what screening is best for you. If you need a primary care physician, you can find one online.