Colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps – cancer of the colon and rectum – is the second-most common cancer in the United States, striking 140,000 people annually... and causing 60,000 deaths. It is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United State for both men and women combined. That’s a staggering figure when you consider the disease is preventable, can be successfully treated and is potentially curable if diagnosed in the early stages.
Who is at Risk?
Colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps strikes men and women with almost equal frequency. Though colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps may occur at any age, more than 90 percent of the patients are over age 40, at which point the risk doubles every ten years. The general population faces a lifetime risk for developing the disease of about 5 percent. In addition to age, a family history of colorectal cancer and colon polyps increases the chance of developing the disease to 10 percent to 15 percent. Also at high risk are individuals with a personal history of colitis ulcerative, colon polyps or cancer of other organs, especially of the breast or uterus. The risk rises to over 50 percent in people with colitis ulcerative and those whose family members harbor specific genetic mutations.
African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps in advanced stages. Incidence rates for colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps in these groups has been on the rise – colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps has increased 46 percent among African-American men and 10 percent among African-American women. Alaska Native women have the highest mortality from colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps than any other racial and ethnic group in the United States.
Surpassing both breast and prostate cancers in mortality, colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps is second only to lung cancer in numbers of deaths in the United States.
How Does it Start?
It is generally agreed that nearly all colon and rectal cancer begins in benign colon polyps (mushroom-like growths on the lining of the colon and rectum). These pre-malignant growths occur on the bowel wall and may eventually increase in size and become cancer. Polyp-related colorectal cancer can be prevented. During colonoscopy, polyps can be removed. Removal of benign colon polyps before they become cancerous may prevent cancer from developing. This is one aspect of preventive medicine that really works!
What are the Symptoms?
Colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps is often a silent disease, developing with no symptoms at all. When symptoms do occur, the most common are rectal bleeding, blood in or on the stool and changes in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea. (These symptoms are also common in other diseases, so it is important you receive a thorough examination should you experience them.) Additional symptoms may include stools that are narrower than usual, general stomach discomfort (bloating, fullness and/or cramps), vomiting, the feeling that the bowel does not empty completely, frequent gas pains and constant tiredness. Abdominal pain and weight loss are usually late symptoms indicating possible extensive disease. If you have any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, see your doctor or health professional immediately.
Unfortunately, many colon polyps and early cancers fail to produce symptoms. Therefore, it is important that your routine physical includes colorectal cancer detection procedures once you reach age 40. Those detection methods are a digital rectal exam and a chemical test of stool for blood. A sigmoidoscopy – the inspection of the lower bowel with a lighted tubular instrument – should be part of routine physical checkups.
How is Colorectal Cancer/Cancerous Polyps Treated?
Colorectal cancer treatment requires surgery in nearly all cases for complete cure. Radiation and chemotherapy are sometimes used in addition to surgery. Between 80 percent and 90 percent are restored to normal health if the cancer/polyps is detected and treated in the earliest stages. The cure rate drops to 50 percent or less when diagnosed in the later stages. It is estimated that approximately 40,000 lives a year could be saved through widespread adoption of colon cancer screening and early treatment of colon cancer in men and women. Thanks to modern technology, less than 5 percent of all colorectal cancer/polyps patients require a colostomy, the surgical construction of an artificial excretory opening from the colon.
Can Colon Cancer/Cancerous Polyps be Prevented?
There are steps that reduce the risk of contracting the disease. To lower your risk of colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps, the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons recommends that you:
Get regular colorectal cancer/polyps screenings such as a colonoscopy procedure after age 50. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of colorectal cancer/polyps patients are restored to normal health if their cancer/polyps is detected and treated in the earliest stages. Since there are very few symptoms associated with colon polyps or early colorectal cancer, regular screening is essential.
Current screening methods include fecal occult blood testing (a simple chemical test that can detect hidden blood in the stool), flexible sigmoidoscopy (a visual examination of the rectum and lower portion of the colon, performed in a doctor’s office), double contrast barium enema (barium X-ray), colonoscopy screening (a visual examination of the entire colon) and digital rectal exam. Colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps screening costs are covered by Medicare and many commercial health plans.
The risk of developing colorectal cancer/polyps increases with age. All men and women aged 50 and older are at risk and should be screened. Some people are at a higher risk and should have colon cancer screening at an age younger than 50, including those with a personal or family history of inflammatory bowel disease; colorectal cancer or polyps; or ovarian, endometrial or breast cancer.
- Eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet. Though not definitely proven, there is some evidence that diet may play a significant role in preventing colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps. As far as we know, a high-fiber, low-fat diet is the only dietary measure that might help prevent colorectal cancer/cancerous polyps.
- If you use alcohol, drink only in moderation. If you use tobacco, quit. If you don’t use tobacco, don’t start. Alcohol and tobacco in combination are linked to colorectal and other gastrointestinal cancers.
- Exercise for at least 20 minutes three to four days each week. Moderate exercise such as walking, gardening or climbing steps may help.
Colorectal cancer is extremely preventable if benign colon polyps that lead to cancer are detected and removed by an outpatient exam called a colonoscopy procedure. During colonoscopy, polyps can be removed. In addition to removing the colon polyps, the long flexible tubular instrument used in the procedure provides a more thorough bowel examination.
Finally, you must be aware of changes in your bowel habits and make sure bowel examinations are included in routine physicals once you fall under the “high risk” category.
Can Hemorrhoids Lead to Colon Cancer?
No, but hemorrhoids may produce symptoms similar to colon polyps or cancer. Should you experience these symptoms, you should have them examined and evaluated by a physician, preferably by a colon and rectal surgeon.
For advanced, specialized care, visit Dayton Colon & Rectal Center. Our cancer/colon polyps patients come to us from the area of Miami Valley, in the greater Dayton area and in the greater Springfield area, including: Dayton, Huber Heights, Centerville, Englewood and Kettering in Montgomery County, OH; Springfield in Clark County, OH; and Beavercreek and Xenia in Green County, OH. Call us at 937.435.8663 or fill out our online Request an Appointment form to schedule a consultation with one of our colorectal specialists.