March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a month set aside to raise awareness and educate the public about this devastating disease. Estimates show that over 150,000 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2021, making it the 3rd most common cancer diagnosis in men and women outside of some skin cancers. Because this cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer-related deaths when combining both men and women, you can see how raising awareness on this disease and prevention methods is such an important task. 

When it comes to any type of cancer, early detection is important to provide treatment. Unlike other conditions or illnesses, early signs of colon cancer don’t always manifest until the disease has already begun to grow and progress. Therefore, it’s important to know about your genetics, how to amend your lifestyle, and what early signs of colon cancer to look for to avoid colon cancer altogether or to stop it early in its tracks. Read on to learn about the early warning signs, more information about screening, and how to help prevent colorectal cancer.

Early Warning Signs of Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer symptoms are often mistaken for other issues, such as gastrointestinal upset or a passing virus. One of the most important things to note is a change in bowel habits. Of course, everyone occasionally has a day where they experience symptoms such as constipation or diarrhea; it’s how long these symptoms last that is important to note. If you have distinct changes in bowel habits that continue for more than a week, it’s a good decision to consult your physician. Other early colon cancer signs include issues such as:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Fatigue

It is an unfortunate fact that in many cases, by the time patients experience symptoms, the cancer has already progressed to a later stage. Knowing about symptoms of colon cancer is useful, but even more critical is scheduling your screening on time every year.

Screening Could Help Save Your Life

A screening colonoscopy is a procedure that lets the doctor look inside the entire rectum and colon by way of a colonoscope, which is a long slender tube with a camera and light at the tip. This procedure is virtually painless, as the patient is sedated and isn’t aware of what is going on. The patient may experience minor discomfort after the procedure, but this usually subsides in a short amount of time. The procedure is conducted by a gastroenterologist who specializes in performing this test. If colorectal cancer is found, the patient will undergo a complete diagnosis with further testing.

Colonoscopy with a Colonoscope

A colonoscopy is the gold standard for colorectal cancer screening and the procedure truly saves lives. If colon cancer is caught in its early stages, patients can expect a 95 percent chance of survival. Colon cancer diagnosed in the later stages (such as early-stage IV) offers patients only a 12 percent chance of survival. Screening can not only help diagnose colon cancer but also treat it.

Colorectal cancer begins as polyps that appear in the colon and rectum, and sometimes just in the colon. Some polyps may be benign, but many become cancerous over time. Not only can the physician’s colonoscopy detect polyps in the colon and rectum, it can also remove them during the procedure.

You should talk to your physician about scheduling your first colonoscopy before you turn 45. As of 2018, the American Cancer Society lowered the screening guidelines from age 50 to 45, because of the prevalence of diagnosed cases in younger patients. If you are high-risk (first-degree relative has a colon cancer diagnosis), you should likely have a screening sooner.

Is Colon Cancer Preventable?

It is a mixture of genetics and lifestyle that is associated with colon cancer. Of course, patients can’t change their genetics – but being knowledgeable about family history is essential. If you have a first-degree relative who has had colon cancer, polyps, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you should let your doctor know. Patients who are of African-American or Ashkenazi Jewish descent are also in a higher risk category, as well as those with inherited syndromes (such as Lynch syndrome).

When it comes to lifestyle, obesity and being overweight is strongly correlated with colon cancer. Patients are also advised to:

  • Quit smoking
  • Curtail drinking
  • Eat a healthy diet full of fiber and leafy greens
  • Avoid red and processed meat
  • Not lead a sedentary lifestyle
  • Avoid sugary, fatty foods

Lifestyle changes can make a big difference not only in avoiding colon cancer, but in living a healthier life overall, eliminating a higher risk of obesity, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and other conditions. Those who are having trouble with their diet, exercising regularly, or quitting smoking should ask their physician for help. 

If you need more information about the early signs of colorectal cancer, or you want to schedule your screening, book an appointment at Needham Gastroenterology Associates today. Keeping up with regular screenings can certainly diminish the chance of a colon cancer diagnosis.