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Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Colon cancer is second leading cause of cancer-related deaths

On average, 1 in 20 Americans is at risk for developing colorectal cancer in their lifetime. What may begin as a polyp, or a growth in the tissue that lines the inner surface of the colon or rectum, can become a serious condition.

“Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death in both men and women, and it really shouldn’t be,” said Dr. Scott Choi, director of digestive disease at Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center and Novant Health UVA Health System Haymarket Medical Center. "For the majority of cases, colorectal cancer is preventable, since it starts as a polyp that can be removed during a screening colonoscopy.  Studies have shown that removing adenomatous polyps not only reduces the risk of colorectal cancer, but reduces the number of deaths from the disease by more than a half."

So how do you know if you’re at risk?

“It’s important to get the age-appropriate screening done,” Choi said. “For someone of average risk, that age is 50. For African-Americans, it’s age 45.”

The most common screening for colorectal cancer is a colonoscopy. Studies have shown that colonoscopies reduce deaths from colorectal cancer by about 60-70 percent. In fact, a new study suggests if more widespread screenings were conducted among older adults, there would be 21,000 fewer colon cancer deaths nationwide by 2030.

It is recommended for individuals at average risk for colorectal cancer to start regular screenings at age 50 and continue until age 75 as long as their results are negative.

Choi said those who have family members affected by colorectal cancer or polyps should get screened 10 years younger than the age the family member was diagnosed. In other words, if a family member was diagnosed at 48, it’s a good idea to start getting screened at 38. He said to pay attention to first-degree relatives, such as immediate siblings or parents.

Choi noted men are more likely to have polyps at the time they are screened than women.

“If you wait to the point where you have signs and symptoms, it could be too late,” Choi said. “We do know that colon cancer deaths have been decreasing due to the increase in screenings over the past decade.”

Should you have a colonoscopy? Here are some indicators from the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons:

  • Change in bowel habits
  • General stomach discomfort
  • Diarrhea, constipation or feeling the bowel does not empty completely
  • Weight loss for no apparent reason
  • Constant tiredness

Published: 3/5/2015
Updated on: 3/1/2017