Understanding colorectal cancer

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which means there is no better time to learn more or refresh your knowledge about this disease.  

Colorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer, is extremely prevalent and unfortunately, despite it’s treatability, is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. The good news is that, if detected early, 90% of colon cancer cases are curable.  

We’re going to dive into what colon cancer is, certain risk factors, and how you can stay on top of screenings to ensure your odds of early detection are as high as possible. 

What is colorectal cancer? 

Colorectal cancer is a disease that starts in the colon or the rectum. The rectum is the passageway that connects the colon to the anus. These cancers can also be called colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where they start. 

Most colorectal cancers start as a growth on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. These growths are called polyps, of which there are two types:  

Neoplastic: Have the potential to become cancerous and include adenomas and serrated types. 

Nonneoplastic: Typically, do not become cancerous. These include hyperplastic, inflammatory, and hamartomatous polyps. 

Factors that can make a polyp more likely to contain cancer or increase someone’s risk of developing colorectal cancer include: 

  • If a polyp larger than 1 cm is found 
  • If more than 3 polyps are found 
  • If the polyp looks abnormal under a microscope when a pathologist looks at it. 

What are the risk factors of colon cancer? 

There are a few variables that can impact your risk level, including: 

  • Age: Your risk increases with age, especially after age 50 
  • Family history: A family history of colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer increases your risk. 
  • Diabetes: If you have Type 2 Diabetes, your risk of colon cancer is higher.  

Prevention is key 

Screening tests can find precancerous polyps, so that they can be removed before they turn into cancer. Screening tests can also find colorectal cancer early, when treatment works best. You should always discuss what your risk level is, and the appropriate screening option for you, with your provider.

Aside from screening, there are a number of lifestyle choices you can make to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer. They are:

  • Maintain a healthy weight: If you are overweight or obese, your risk of developing colorectal cancer is higher, and the link seems to be stronger in men. Getting to and staying at a healthy weight may lower your risk.
  • Increase physical activity: Being more active lowers your risk of colorectal cancer and polyps. Increasing the amount and intensity of physical activity can lower your risk.
  • Limit alcohol: Your body breaks alcohol down into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which damages your DNA and prevents your body from repairing the damage. When DNA is damaged, a cell can begin growing out of control and create a cancer tumor.
  • Stop using tobacco: Tobacco use can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body. Smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes has at least 70 cancer causing chemicals, many of which can damage DNA.

Schedule an appointment with your provider today to learn more about colon cancer and how you can stay well.