Colorectal Cancer: Why it's important to catch it early

Author: Jasmine Brown

This year more than 140,000 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. This includes cancers of the colon and rectal area. Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths across the country, among men and women.

In 2020, this disease gained a national spotlight, especially among African Americans, who are at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer, when “Black Panther” actor Chadwick Boseman died at age 43 – four years after being diagnosed with colon cancer.

“It is more common in men than women,” explained Tolutope Oyasiji, MD, MRCSI, MHSA, FACS, surgical oncologist at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint. “It is also more common among African Americans than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. While the incidence of colorectal cancer has decreased over the last couple of decades, there has been an increase in the incidence of, and death due to, colorectal cancer in the age group 20-49 years.”

Dr. Oyasiji specializes in surgical removal of cancer located in the gastrointestinal tract, including colon and rectum cancers.

Colorectal cancers usually start as a non-cancerous polyp, or growth. When polyps are found, they can usually be removed before cancer develops. This is why regular colonoscopies are so important.

If the polyp does become cancerous, treatment options are available at Karmanos. Colorectal cancer cure rates increase the earlier the cancer is discovered.

“Earlier stages of colorectal cancer are more likely to require surgery alone to cure the disease while later stages may require additional treatment with radiation, such as rectal cancer, and chemotherapy,” said Dr. Oyasiji. “The disease may not be curable when the patient presents at a very late stage - only palliative treatment may be available in these cases. So, time is of the essence. Prompt diagnosis is crucial to cure and better outcomes.”

Should You Be Screened?

There are usually no symptoms during the early stages of the disease, so it is important to receive regular testing. Generally, men and women who are considered at average risk for colon cancer should begin screenings at age 50. If you are considered high risk, you may be encouraged to begin screening at an earlier age.

Men and women who are considered high risk for colon cancers are encouraged to speak with their physician about receiving a colonoscopy. Those who are at a high risk usually:

  • Are African American. African Americans are recommended to begin screening at age 45.
  • Have had colorectal cancer before.
  • Have a history of ovarian, uterine or breast cancer.
  • Have a family history of colorectal cancer or other genetic factors (e.g. Lynch syndrome, or familial polyposis).
  • Have a personal history of colorectal polyps.
  • Have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), also known as Crohn’s disease or Colitis.
  • Are obese and/or are physically inactive.
  • Are regular tobacco or alcohol users.
  • Have a diet that is high fat or high in red or processed meat and low in fiber, calcium, fruit and vegetables.
  • Have Type 2 diabetes.
  • If you fall between these guidelines and the results of your first screening are normal, physicians recommend receiving a colonoscopy every 10 years.

What are the Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer?

Though symptoms of colorectal cancer at the early stages are not usually present, there are symptoms you should know about, should you develop the disease in its later stages. The most common symptom is a change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or blood in the stool. Other symptoms include cramping or pain in the lower abdominal (stomach) area, constant tiredness, or lack of energy.

 “Talk to your primary care provider if you notice any of these symptoms and request to be screened. Remember you are the greatest advocate for your own health,” said Dr. Oyasiji.

Get Screened

It is never too late to speak to your primary care doctor about your risk of developing colorectal cancer. For colorectal screenings, your provider may refer you to a McLaren Flint gastroenterology specialist to receive the screening option that works best for you. For more information on colorectal cancer and colonoscopies, visit