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Colorectal Cancer: Are You at Risk?

Published on Mar. 21, 2022

 

Colon Cancer Warning Signs Symptoms

Learn the Warning Signs and Your Personal Risk Factors

Colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related death in the US, second only to lung cancer. And cases of early-onset colorectal cancer (diagnosis before age 50) continue to rise annually.  

Read on to learn more about colorectal cancer, including its causes, the highest-risk factors, and preventative tips that keep colorectal cancer from developing or spreading.

In this blog:

  1. What is colorectal cancer?
  2. What causes colorectal cancer?
  3. Family history and colorectal cancer risk
  4. Colorectal cancer warning signs
  5. Preventing colorectal cancer
  6. Treating colorectal cancer
  7. When you should schedule your screening

What is colorectal cancer?

What is colorectal cancer?Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in either your colon or your rectum. In most cases, cancer doesn't start in both places. But colon and rectum cancer have a lot in common. So they're often called colorectal cancer.

Together, the colon and rectum make up the large intestine (aka the large bowel or intestine). Like your other organs, the large intestine is lined with millions of cells. Changes in these cells can lead to abnormal growths (aka polyps).

Polyps can be benign (not harmful); pre-cancerous; or malignant (cancerous). Most polyps are not harmful, but certain types are at high risk of developing into cancer. Colon cancer spreads when a polyp becomes cancerous and the cells grow into the colon's walls.


What causes colorectal cancer?

Like many other types of cancer, there is no single cause of colorectal cancer. But there are certain risk factors that increase your risk for developing it:What causes colorectal cancer?

  • Smoking
  • Poor diet (low in fiber, high in processed foods)
  • A family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Genetic factors
  • Age (Being age 45+ increases your risk)
  • Weight (obese men have a 50% higher chance or colon cancer and a 25% higher chance of rectal cancer, for example)
  • Gender (rectal cancer rates are higher in men)
  • Certain health conditions (like Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and type 2 diabetes)

About 55 percent of colorectal cancer diagnoses in the US are linked to lifestyle choices, such as our diet, alcohol and cigarette consumption, physical fitness, and weight, according to the American Cancer Society.


How Much Does Family History Affect Colorectal Cancer Risk?

“Family history is an important tool for understanding one’s own risk for developing colorectal cancer,” explains Laura Johnson MS, CGC, a genetic counselor with Munson Healthcare’s Oncology Support Services. “Individuals with a family history or other known risk factors might benefit from screening at an earlier age and having screening more frequently.”

That risk, however, depends on the age of the family member who had it, as well as the degree of your relative.

Family History of Colorectal Cancer Risk

Relative Your risk of colorectal cancer compared to someone with no family history
A first-degree relative
(your parents, siblings, or children)
2.2 times more likely
Two or more first-degree relatives 3.6 times more likely
One or more first-degree relatives diagnosed before age 50. 4 times more likely
One or more second-degree relative
(your aunts and uncles, grandparents, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews)
1.7 times more likely

If Your Relative(s) Developed Colon Cancer Specifically Before Age 50

Having a relative with early-onset colorectal cancer (the cancer developed before age 50) increases your risk factor. Researchers from the researchers the University at Buffalo and the University of Utah reviewed over 1500 early-onset colon cancer cases and published the following findings in the August 2021 edition of Cancer Epidemiology:

Your relative with early-onset colon cancer is/was: Risk of early-onset colon cancer
A first-degree relative
(your parents, siblings, or children)
2.2 times more likely
Two or more first-degree relatives 3.6 times more likely
One or more first-degree relatives diagnosed before age 50. 4 times more likely
One or more second-degree relative
(your aunts and uncles, grandparents, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews)
1.7 times more likely

What Are the Warning Signs of Colorectal Cancer?

Watch this special episode of Munson Minutes to understand the warning signs:

Other non-cancerous conditions may cause these signs, so it's important to see a gastroenterologist and undergo routine screenings. There are a number of screening options that you can discuss with your doctor.


Preventing colorectal cancer

A healthy lifestyle can help decrease your risk of colorectal cancer. Things like maintaining a healthy weight (especially around your abdomen), living smoke-free, monitoring your sugar and alcohol intake, exercising regularly, and enjoying a fiber-rich diet can help reduce your risk.

schedule colonoscopyBut perhaps the biggest factor in preventing complications from this disease is routine screening – especially if you’re over age 45 or you have a family history of colorectal cancer. A colonoscopy is the most comprehensive type of screening.

“Colonoscopy screening can help prevent colorectal cancer by finding and removing polyps before they turn into cancer. Screening tests can also help detect colorectal cancer at an early, more curable stage,” says Johnson.

Though some people may put off this type of screening because it involves a liquid laxative, sedation, and taking a day off from work, a colonoscopy is considered the gold standard in colorectal screening since it allows a thorough examination of the entire colon. The good news? You typically only need one colonoscopy per decade if no cancer is found.  Talk to your doctor or gastroenterologist about other types of screening if any of these factors are a concern.


Treating Colorectal Cancer

Treatment varies depending on whether the cancer is in the colon or in the rectum. Surgery is typically required to remove ​colon cancer – and chemotherapy and other targeted therapies may be needed, especially if it has spread to other organs (such as your liver, ovaries, or lungs). ​Rectal cancer, on the other hand, is usually treated with systemic therapy and radiation followed by surgery if needed. Approximately 65% of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer will survive five years following diagnosis and about 60% at ten years (Source: American Cancer Society).


Get Screened Today

Talk with your healthcare provider about getting screened. If you’re over 45 years old or at higher risk due to certain factors like family history, your insurance often covers up to all of your screening costs. 


Questions?

If you have questions about colorectal cancer, be sure to ask your healthcare provider during your next visit. Your trusted primary care provider can help you understand more about this cancer, including your best options for screening and prevention.