By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
The numbers are scary. For those who are diagnosed with late- stage colon cancer, the five-year survival rate is an abysmal 12 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
Colorectal cancer can start in the colon or in the rectum and begins as growths in the inner lining. The growths — called polyps — can change into cancer over time, although not all polyps become cancer.
This year alone, more than 145,000 new colon and rectal cancer cases are expected to be detected and more than 51,020 people will die from the disease. That figure takes on even more weight considering what medical experts have been telling patients for decades — colorectal cancer is highly preventable.
“Colonoscopies are the gold standard when it comes to colorectal screening,” said Steven Nurkin, a surgical oncologist and associate professor of oncology at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo.
Nurkin offers five important elements people need to know about colon cancer.
Screening tests can detect colon and rectal cancer at its earliest, most treatable stage. It is important to consult your doctor if you experience a change in bowel habits — such as diarrhea or constipation — or have a feeling that your bowel is not emptying completely or there is a narrowing of the stool. Other feelings include an enlarged abdomen, weight loss for no known reason, nausea or feeling of bloating.
The five-year survival rate for colon cancer found at the early age is 90 percent, according to the Colon Cancer Alliance.
Once a person reaches 50 years of age, most routine, preventable screening colonoscopies are covered with no co-pay under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care.
“Colonoscopies allow the doctor to examine the colon lining for polyps, which can be removed on the spot,” said Nurkin. “Removing polyps before they become malignant effectively prevents cancer, so it’s really important to get screened as recommended.”
He added that other treatments, such as send-away stool-based screening tests, can be offered to some people.
“You should speak to your doctor to see if you qualify for them, or which test is best for you,” he said.
2. Listen to your body
Symptoms to colon cancer include rectal bleeding, stomach pain, weakness, weight loss and low red blood cells. Colorectal cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells in the colon or rectum divide uncontrollably, ultimately forming malignant tumors.
“Know some of the symptoms, and be sure to consult with a doctor to get them checked out,” said Nurkin. “Even if you have one of the known symptoms, you should pay attention.”
3. Know your family history
There is no way to know for certain if you will develop colon or rectal cancer, but there is a variety of factors that may increase your risk for these cancers. The risk increases with age —if you are over the age of 50 you are at a higher risk, for example. It also increases if the person has a close family member —parents, brother or sister — with history of the disease.
“Ten percent of the population has a first-degree relative with colon cancer, which significantly increases your risk for colon cancer,” said Nurkin. “Men and women are at equal risk of developing the disease. Other risks include personal history of polyps, inflammatory bowel disease, and African-American or Native American ethnicity.”
4. Incidence increasing among young adults
It’s the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., and incidence rates are on the rise for people under the age of 50. A 2017 study shows that people younger than 55 are more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage disease. The American Cancer Society looked at the records of almost 500,000 people 20 years and older who were diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer from 1974 through 2013. They included people born in 1980 through those born in 1990.The study found that for adults aged 20 to 39, colon cancer incidence rates increased by 1 percent to 2 percent per year through 2013. In adults 40 to 54, rates increased by 0.5 percent to 1 percent per year from the mid-1990s through 2013. In fact, the American Cancer Society now recommends starting screening colonoscopies at age 45.
5. Adopt a healthy lifestyle
Smoking causes many types of illnesses — including some that people may not immediately associate with cigarettes, such as colon cancer. Smokers not only have a higher risk of developing colon cancer, they also have a higher risk of dying from the disease. Staying both in shape and watching for potential risk factors are essential to stay ahead of the trend.
“It’s one of the best ways to reduce your risk. Exercising regularly, eating a high-fiber, low-fat diet, limiting your alcohol intake, and quitting smoking are all really effective changes on the prevention front,” added Nurkin.