Colorectal cancer is quite common in the United States. Excluding skin cancer, it’s the third most common cause of cancer in men and women. The good news is colorectal cancer is often preventable and we have good screening tests to find it in earlier, more treatable stages. Keep reading to learn more about this type of cancer, what increases your risk and when to start screenings.
What is colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer—also called colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where it originates—occurs in the colon or rectum. The colon and rectum are part of the digestive system and are located in the large intestine. These two types of cancer are grouped together because they share many of the same risk factors and screening recommendations.
What increases your risk of colorectal cancer?
The following factors can increase your risk of colorectal cancer:
- Age (it’s most common in people 50 and older, but it can occur at any age)
- Inflammatory bowel disease, like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- Personal or family history of colorectal polyps or cancer
- Genetic syndromes like familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
- Type 2 diabetes
- Being African American or of Ashkenazi Jewish descent
The following lifestyle factors can also increase your risk of colorectal cancer:
- Lack of physical activity
- A diet low in fiber, vegetables and fruit
- A diet high in fat or processed meats (like salami, sausage and bacon)
- Being overweight or obese
- Alcohol consumption
- Tobacco use
How can you reduce your risk of colorectal cancer?
The best way to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer is to get screened starting at age 45 (unless your health care provider recommends getting screened earlier). Nearly all cases of colorectal cancer begin as precancerous polyps (small growths on the rectum or colon). Polyps can be present for years before they become cancerous. Screenings are essential for detecting precancerous polyps. If your doctor finds a polyp, they can remove it before it becomes cancerous.
Your diet also plays a role in reducing your risk. Experts recommend a diet low in animal fats (like red meat, bacon and butter) and high in fibrous vegetables, fruit and whole grains.
Research also suggests that the following may lower your risk:
- Avoiding tobacco products
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Increasing physical activity
What colorectal cancer screening is right for you?
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends adults ages 45 to 75 get screened for colorectal cancer. Depending on your risk factors, you may need screenings earlier and more often. If you’re over age 75, ask your doctor if you should get screened.
Colorectal cancer screening options include:
- Colonoscopy: A colonoscopy is a procedure in which a doctor uses a thin, flexible, lighted tube to check for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and colon. During a colonoscopy, your doctor can remove precancerous polyps or cancerous growths. If you have an average risk of colorectal cancer, you should get a colonoscopy every 10 years.
- At-home stool tests: You’ll get an at-home test kit from your medical provider. At home, you’ll collect a small sample of stool, place it in the kit according to the directions and return it to your provider’s office or a lab. The sample will be tested for blood or altered DNA in the stool, depending on the test. Two types of at-home tests must be done yearly, while another type should be done every three years.
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy: Similar to a colonoscopy, this procedure examines the lower third of the colon and the rectum for polyps and cancerous growths. It’s recommended every five years or every 10 years when combined with an at-home FIT-DNA test.
- CT colonography (virtual colonography): Your doctor will use X-rays and a computer to take images of your colon. They’ll analyze the images to look for signs of cancer. A CT colonography is recommended every five years.
There are advantages and disadvantages for each type of test, so talk to your health care provider about what’s right for you.
What are colorectal cancer symptoms?
Colorectal cancer symptoms can include:
- A change in your bowel habits
- Blood on or in your stool
- Persistent cramping or pain in your abdomen
- Feeling like your bowel didn’t empty after you use the bathroom
- Unexplained weight loss
While these symptoms can be caused by other conditions, it’s important to tell your health care provider right away. Colorectal cancer is easier to treat when it’s caught early.
Talk to your primary care provider about colorectal cancer screenings and what you can do to reduce your risk. Find a provider near you.