Did you know that colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer killer overall and third most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States in both males and females? These statistics from the American Cancer Society are alarming. However, there are also statistics that show that colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, thanks to what is now known about effective prevention. It is also one of the most curable cancers if detected and treated in its early stages.

Colorectal (large bowel) cancer is a disease in which malignant cancer cells form in the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Together, the colon and rectum make up the large bowel or large intestine. The large bowel’s main job is to reabsorb water from the contents of the intestine so that solid waste can be expelled.

Most colorectal cancers originate from benign wart-like growths on the inner lining of the colon or rectum called polyps. Not all polyps have the potential to transform into cancer. Those that do have the potential are called adenomas. It takes more than 10 years in most cases for an adenoma to develop into cancer. This is why some colon cancer prevention tests are effective even if done at 10-year intervals.

Who is at risk for colorectal cancer?

A report from the American College of Gastroenterology states the following:

• Everyone age 50 and over: 93% of cases of colorectal cancer occur in persons 50 years of age and over. The average age to develop colorectal cancer is 70 years. Current recommendations are to begin screening at age 50 (age 45 for African-Americans) if there are no risk factors other than age for colorectal cancers.

• Men and women: Men tend to get colorectal cancer at an earlier age than women, but women live longer so they “catch up” with men. Thus, the total number of cases in men and women is equal.

• Anyone with a family history of colorectal cancer: Special screening programs are used for those with a family history of colorectal cancer. A well-documented family history of adenomas is also an important risk factor.

• Anyone with a personal history of colorectal cancer or adenomas at any age, or uterine or ovarian cancer diagnosed before age 50: These groups should be checked by colonoscopy at regular intervals, usually every 3 to 5 years.

Act with Knowledge:
Colorectal screening tests are not popular. Many adults put off testing because they are squeamish about the procedures, which may require patients to collect stool samples or have an instrument inserted into the rectum.
Screening advocates point out that the unpleasantness is a small price to pay to avoid a painful and deadly disease, and most people who have had the tests say they are no big deal. The worst part of a colonoscopy, many people find, is not the test itself (usually performed under sedation), but the “prep,” which requires a day at home taking supercharged laxatives to empty the intestines.