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9 Things To Know About Colon Cancer

Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States and is expected to claim more than 52,000 lives in 2023. Fortunately, the death rate has been dropping over the past few decades, thanks to improved treatments and early detection of cancer-causing polyps.

There is an exception to that trend, however, with a worrying rise in colon cancer rates among younger people. The incidence of colon cancer in people under the age of 55 has doubled in the past 20 years. Researchers still aren’t sure why this has happened, though they suspect it is related to unhealthy diets, lack of physical activity and a corresponding rise in obesity rates.

With this information, let’s take a look at nine things you should know about colorectal cancer:

1.     Colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers.

Most cases of colon cancer can be prevented by catching and removing troublesome polyps before they have a chance to become cancerous. Polyps are small clusters of cells that form on the lining of your colon. Often, they are harmless. But over time, they can become cancerous. There are instances, however, when colon cancer skips the polyp stage.

2.     If you have colon cancer, you may feel healthy.

Colon cancer is one of many diseases considered “silent.” In the early stages, it’s unlikely you would notice anything unusual. Only in later stages – when cure rates go down substantially – will you detect the more common symptoms, including blood in the stool, changes in bowel habits and abdominal pain.

3.     For most people, screening should start at age 45.

In 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended lowering the initial colorectal cancer screening age to 45 from 50. The change reflects growing concerns about an increase in cancer cases among younger adults. If you have average risk factors, it’s recommended to get a follow up screening every 10 years – if you are using a colonoscopy. The interval will be shorter if you have substantial risk factors (including a family history of colon cancer) or choose a different screening option.

4.     The colonoscopy isn’t your only screening option.

Colonoscopy is the gold standard for colon cancer screening. It is the most accurate tool available, and it allows your doctor to remove polyps encountered during the procedure. There are, however, other approved options, including a virtual colonoscopy and stool-based tests that require you to collect and submit a stool sample for analysis. The alternatives are less accurate, which means they need to be repeated more frequently – sometimes annually.

5.     Colon cancer tends to grow slowly.

This slow growth is what makes colon cancer so treatable and is why colonoscopies are recommended every 10 years. On average, it takes eight to 10 years for colon cancer to form. This also allows your doctor to catch the disease before it becomes more difficult to treat.

6.     Genetics may increase your risk for colon cancer.

It’s estimated that 5 percent of people with colon cancer have an inherited gene that causes family cancer syndromes. Not all family cancer cases are equal, however. If you have a 95-year-old grandfather with colon cancer, that’s not as concerning as having a 48-year-old brother with the disease.

7.     Your lifestyle choices affect your risk.

While you can’t do anything about your genetics, there are risk factors that you can control. Many of the most significant factors are related to lifestyle. These include being overweight or obese; not being physically active; having a diet heavy in red meats and processed foods; and smoking.

8.     Newer treatments offer hope for later stage cases.

Some people may avoid screening because they worry about being diagnosed with cancer. Even if you know of someone who died after a late-stage diagnosis, you should understand that treatment options are constantly being improved. Even though it is the second leading cause of cancer deaths, this is still a disease that is easier to treat than most cancers.

9.     What to expect if you are diagnosed.

A cancer diagnosis involves blood tests and a biopsy of cancerous tissue taken from your colon. Advanced imaging may also be used to determine whether the disease has spread to other parts of the body. Afterward, your treatment may include surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. Survival rates vary significantly based on when the cancer is caught. But at the earliest stage, the five-year survival rate is 91 percent.

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