Colorectal cancer (CRC) is a broad term that includes cancer of both the colon and the rectum. These cancers can also be called colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where they start. In the group of cancers that affect both men and women, it is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. However, CRC is highly preventable and treatable when caught early. The most important factors in getting timely treatment are awareness and screening.
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, during which thousands of people affected by CRC throughout the country join together to raise awareness by wearing blue, holding fundraisers and educational events, talking to friends and family about screening and much more. The Department of Veterans Affairs online Veterans Health Library helps to keep Veterans informed about the disease by sharing the most recent information about CRC screening tests, treatments, risk factors and more.
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), CRC is more common among men than women and is more common among Black individuals than in other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. Even though the overall incidence of CRC has declined over the last couple of decades, both incidents and death rates of CRC are increasing in younger men and women, aged 20-49 years.
Symptoms and Risk Factors
Colorectal cancer is highly preventable and treatable when caught early.
Almost all CRC begins as precancerous polyps inside the colon or rectum, which are most often discovered through screening tests. It is important to find and remove these polyps before they turn into cancer. People may have no symptoms, particularly in the early stages. That’s why it’s so important to get screened. Current guidelines recommend having your first screening at age 45 or sooner if you are at higher risk. When CRC symptoms do occur, they may include:
- Changes in bowel habits
- Blood or changes in the appearance of bowel movements
- Pain and bloating
- Unexplained weight loss
Your risk of getting CRC increases as you get older. Some risk factors are out of your control, like family history and race. Other risk factors include:
- Alcohol use
- Cigarette smoking
- History of polyps or inflammatory bowel disease
The American Cancer Society says you can help lower your CRC risk by changing the risk factors that you can control and by adopting certain lifestyle choices. Read more about their recommendations regarding diet, physical activity, supplements and more.
Screening Tests and Treatment
Studies show that screening tests help find CRC at an early stage and may decrease the number of deaths from the disease. It is important to know that if your test result is positive or abnormal on a stool test, flexible sigmoidoscopy or virtual colonoscopy, a colonoscopy test is needed to complete the screening process. Five types of tests are used to screen for CRC:
- Fecal occult blood test
- Virtual colonoscopy
- DNA stool test
The most common treatment for many stages of CRC is the surgical removal of the cancer. Additional therapies include chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy, radiofrequency ablation and cryosurgery, depending on the stage. Researchers at NCI are working to advance their understanding of how to prevent, detect and treat CRC, in addition to looking at what factors influence screening behaviors, how to address disparities and the rising rates of CRC in younger people.
Remember, colorectal cancer screening is for healthy people. Screening finds precancerous polyps that can be removed before they turn into colorectal cancer. Give yourself the best chance to beat this cancer before it starts. If you are age 45 or over, check with your health care provider to learn about your level of risk and which screening option is best for you. No matter which test you choose, the most important thing is to get tested.