Cancer takes many forms, and different types of the disease behave differently. Susceptibility to various forms of cancer may be affected by such factors as age, race, sex, heredity, diet and personal lifestyle. That’s certainly true with cancers of the colon and rectum, which kill more than 50,000 Americans each year.
Age is clearly a significant risk factor for colorectal cancer. The disease is more common in people over 50, but bear in mind that colorectal cancer can occur at younger ages.
Then there’s the matter of what we eat. Colorectal cancer seems to be associated with diets that are high in fat and calories and low in fiber. Many doctors encourage people to avoid foods containing lots of fat — especially animal fat — and instead eat lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Family history also may be a factor. If you have close relatives (parent or siblings) who have contracted colorectal cancer, your risk of developing the disease is doubled. And there are genetic and hereditary factors that account for a small percentage of colorectal cancers.
People who are not physically active have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends that to improve health, people engage in moderate exercise for at least 30 minutes, four to five times a week.
Your lifestyle choices may also affect your chances of developing colorectal cancer. Overweight people are at greater risk of developing the disease, as are people who smoke.
In assessing your chances of developing the disease, doctors may weigh your personal medical history. People who have already had colon or rectal cancer, as well as some other kinds of cancers, have a heightened risk of developing the disease. Likewise, people who have been diagnosed and treated for polyps — which can be a precursor to the disease — are more likely to develop colorectal cancer.
People with a history of chronic inflammatory conditions such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease have an increased risk of colon cancer. For such patients, doctors often recommend that screening start earlier and should be done more frequently.
Having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t mean a person will develop colorectal cancer. And knowing the risk factors is only part of the equation. Patients who think they may be at higher risk of the disease should ask their doctors about when they should begin checking for colorectal cancer, what tests they should have, and how often.
There are several ways of screening for colorectal cancer:
—A digital rectal examine (or DRE) involves a doctor inserting a gloved finger into the rectum to feel for abnormalities.
—A fecal occult blood test, which involves taking small samples of feces, may reveal hidden blood in the stool, which can be an indication of polyps or more serious problems.
—A sigmoidoscopy involves using a lighted instrument to examine the rectum and lower colon for signs of cancer or other disease.
—A colonoscopy is a procedure that is similar to the sigmoidoscopy, but capable of examining the entire colon. Certain minor surgical procedures, such as biopsy and removing polyps, can also be performed using this device.
—A double-contrast barium enema involves a series of x-rays of the colon and rectum, performed after the patient is given a barium enemy. The barium solution outlines the colon and rectum on the x-rays.
Whatever screening approach is chosen, it’s important to know that early detection and treatment may make a difference in the eventual outcome of colorectal cancer. The five-year survival rate is about 90 percent for people whose colorectal cancer is treated in an early stage, before it has spread, but only about a third of colorectal cancers are found that soon. The further the cancer has progressed, the lower the odds are for survival. For people whose cancer has spread to distant body parts, the five-year survival rate is only eight percent.
For patients with a hereditary risk of colon cancer, Brookwood offers counseling and genetic testing. For more information or for physician referral call 877-8800 or 1-888-Brookwood.