The month of March has been named National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so now’s a good time to reflect on what awareness means, and how talking about a specific condition, its symptoms and treatment, can make a world of difference.
It seems hard to believe in these days of 5K fundraising walks and awareness ribbons and bracelets of every color imaginable, but cancer was once an illness that was only whispered about. This was partly due to the overwhelmingly poor prognosis that cancer patients faced prior to the 1980s, but also to the general taboo about speaking of conditions that were considered terminal. Colorectal cancer was a particularly unspoken subject because of its association with bodily waste, but all of that changed dramatically in 1985, when President Ronald Reagan made public that he would be undergoing surgery for colon cancer.
Opening Up the Discussion About Colon Cancer
The media coverage that followed Reagan’s surgery generated a marked increase in calls to the National Cancer Institute about the disease, as well as an upswing in the number of screening tests that were done and the number of cases that were detected. In 1998 the phenomenon repeated itself when television personality Katie Couric’s husband died of the disease and she became a powerful advocate for awareness and prevention. Couric was instrumental in the creation of the National Colon Cancer Research Alliance, gave testimony on Capital Hill regarding screening, and even televised her own colonoscopy in order to eliminate the mystique and fear surrounding the procedure. Since that time, screening for colorectal cancer has become common, and there has been a six-fold increase of patients whose cancers were detected early and whose lives have been saved as a result. Colorectal cancer has become the poster child for the power of raising awareness.
COLORECTAL CANCER FACTS
- Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States.
- The American Cancer Society’s estimates for the number of colorectal cancer cases in the United States for 2016 are: 95,270 new cases of colon cancer. 39,220 new cases of rectal cancer.
- Overall, the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is: about 1 in 21 (4.7%) for men and 1 in 23 (4.4%) for women.
- Colorectal cancer is far more prevalent in those who have a family history of the disease, but the risks for all increase with age. This is why it recommended that screening take place on a regular basis after the age of fifty.
- It is expected to cause about 49,190 deaths during 2016.
COLON CANCER SYMPTOMS
Because colonoscopy has become a part of standard preventive care, many people are diagnosed before they ever begin to experience symptoms of the disease. Those who do generally report seeing blood in their stools following a bowel movement, having aches and pains in their stomach that do not subside, or losing weight without explanation. Though these symptoms do not always result in a cancer diagnosis, they certainly warrant making an appointment with your physician to get to the root of the problem. See your doctor if you have any of these warning signs:
- Bleeding from the rectum
- Blood in the stool or in the toilet after having a bowel movement
- Dark or black stools
- A change in the shape of the stool (e.g., more narrow than usual)
- Cramping or discomfort in the lower abdomen
- An urge to have a bowel movement when the bowel is empty
- Constipation or diarrhea that lasts for more than a few days
- Decreased appetite
- Unintentional weight loss In some cases, blood loss from the cancer leads to anemia (low number of red blood cells), causing symptoms such as weakness and excessive fatigue.
COLON CANCER PREVENTION
National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is a great time to give yourself a health check, especially if you’re 50 and older. Colon cancer can be prevented with regular screening. Check out our screening guidelines and talk to your doctor today! Preventing colorectal cancer (and not just finding it early) should be a major reason for getting tested. Having polyps found and removed keeps some people from getting colorectal cancer. Tests that have the best chance of finding both polyps and cancer are preferred if these tests are available to you and you are willing to have them.
Starting at age 50, men and women at average risk for developing colorectal cancer should use one of the screening tests below:
- Stool tests. These are tests that can be done in your own home. Your physician will provide you with a kit that will contain either a stick or brush with which you collect a small stool sample. You then return the kit to the physician or send it directly to a lab, where an analysis will be done to determine whether blood is present.
- Flexible Sigmoidoscopy. This test is done by your physician and involves have a flexible scope inserted into your rectum to allow the physician to check for the presence of polyps or cancer in the lower third of the colon. This test should be done every 5 years*.
- Colonoscopy. This test is similar to a sigmoidoscopy, but uses a longer flexible tube that allows your doctor to inspect the entire length of your colon. Unlike a sigmoidoscopy, when a colonoscopy reveals the presence of a polyp or cancerous tissue, the lesions can be removed immediately. This test should be done every 10 years.
- CT Colonography (Virtual Colonoscopy). This testing uses diagnostic imaging equipment to view the colon. This test should be done every 5 years*.
- Double-Contrast Barium Enema. A double-contrast barium enema is a procedure in which x-rays of the colon and rectum are taken after a liquid containing barium is put into the rectum. Barium is a silver-white metallic compound that outlines the colon and rectum on an x-ray and helps show abnormalities. Air is put into the rectum and colon to further enhance the x-ray. This test should be done every 5 years*.
*Colonoscopy should be done if test results are positive.
HEALTHY LIVING AND EATING – ANOTHER WAY TO PREVENT COLORECTAL CANCER
Another great way to reduce your risk of colon cancer is to eat healthy and exercise. Do you eat at least 2 ½ cups of vegetables and fruit every day? Do you get enough physical activity each week? Find out if you’re living smart with the American Cancer Society’s quiz. See if you already have healthy habits. Take the Quiz Now.
COLOR CANCER SURVIVAL RATES, BY STAGE
According to the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database, the following survival rates are from a study of people diagnosed with colon cancer between 2004 and 2010.
- The 5-year relative survival rate for people with stage I colon cancer is about 92%.
- For people with stage IIA colon cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 87%. For stage IIB cancer, the survival rate is about 63%.
- The 5-year relative survival rate for stage IIIA colon cancers is about 89%. For stage IIIB cancers the survival rate is about 69%, and for stage IIIC cancers the survival rate is about 53%.
- Colon cancers that have spread to other parts of the body are often harder to treat and tend to have a poorer outlook. Metastatic, or stage IV colon cancers, have a 5-year relative survival rate of about 11%. Still, there are often many treatment options available for people with this stage of cancer.
Timely evaluation of symptoms consistent with colorectal cancer is essential, even for adults younger than age 50, among whom colorectal cancer incidence is rare, but increasing, and for whom screening is not recommended.