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National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month Nears End


March, National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, is near its end. The importance of being aware of colorectal cancer does not lessen even as we move into April.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if everyone aged 50 years old or older were screened regularly, as many as 60% of deaths from this cancer could be avoided.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with advancing age. More than 90% of cases occur in people aged 50 or older.

In most cases, colorectal cancer develops from precancerous polyps (abnormal growths) in the colon or rectum. The goal of screening tests is to find precancerous polyps, so that they can be removed before turning into cancer. The same screening tests can find colorectal cancer early, when treatment works best.

Individuals with a first-degree relative who has has colorectal cancer or a colon polyp has a 1.7-fold increase over the general population of developing colorectal cancer. These individuals should begin screening at age 40.

Individuals with a history of colon polyps or of colon cancer have an increased future risk of developing a new, separate colon cancer.

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Screening can include:

Fecal occult blood testing, an inexpensive test of the stool to detect tiny amounts of invisible blood, but it only detects cancer or polyps which are bleeding at the time of the test. Only about 50 percent of cancers and 10 percent of polyps bleed enough to be detected.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy allows the physician to directly look at the lining of the lower one-third of the colon and rectum. This is the area where most polyps and cancers appear, but not all.

Colonoscopy provides a safe, more complete way to visually exam the full lining of the colon and rectum. A colonoscopy is used to diagnose colon and rectal problems and to perform biopsies and remove colon polyps. Most colonoscopies are done on an outpatient basis, but require the bowels to be thoroughly cleared of all residue beforehand. Many patients receive intravenous sedation or "twilight sleep" for this procedure. Complications occur in less that 1 percent of patients who undergo a colonoscopy. These risks include bleeding, a tear in the intestine, risks of anesthesia and the failure to detect a polyp.

If no cancer or polyp is found with the colonoscopy, the person can go five to 10 years without a repeat screening. But if there are symptoms, a colonoscopy is advised regardless of age. If polyps or cancer is found or if there is a family history of either, screenings may be performed more often.

Some studies have shown that increased physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight may decrease the risk for colorectal cancer. While there is no consensus on the role of diet in preventing colorectal cancer, medical experts recommend a diet low in animal fats and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products to reduce the risk of other chronic diseases, such as coronary artery disease and diabetes.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeries
American Cancer Society