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March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and time once again to educate ourselves about this potentially deadly disease.

One common myth about colorectal cancer is that it is “a man’s disease,” when in reality it affects both men and women almost equally. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Among cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer – cancer of the colon or rectum – is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Colorectal cancer also is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States.”

This means that approximately 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed every year in the United States and nearly 50,000 people die from the disease.

Here in Montana, according to an April 2007 report from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cause of death from cancer.

While these are very sobering facts, there is a positive side to this. With proper screening, colorectal cancer is considered by experts to be one of the most preventable cancers; in fact, it is estimated that

60 percent to 80 percent of all colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented. Another positive fact is that when detected and treated early, the five-year survival rate is better than 90 percent.

Screening should begin at age 50 and continue at the recommended intervals unless an individual has an increased risk for developing colorectal cancer, in which case screening should begin at an even earlier age. These risk factors include, but are not limited to, a personal or family history of colon cancer or colon polyps, inflammatory bowel diseases, and certain hereditary conditions such as familial adenomatous polyposis or hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer. Check with your health care provider for additional guidelines and risk factors. This information can also be found on the CDC and American Cancer Society Web sites. Check, or

Screening options include the fecal occult blood test, flexible sigmoidoscopy, barium enema, CT colonography and standard optical colonoscopy. The standard optical colonoscopy is also the recommended follow-up exam if any of the other screening methods have abnormal findings. The colonoscopy has the added advantage that the physician can see and remove any polyps or growths during the exam, and so is considered by some experts as the “gold standard” for colorectal cancer screening.

What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer? Often, none at all. It can, however, present with bleeding, pain and cramping in the lower abdomen, changes in bowel habits and unexplained weight loss. These symptoms could have other causes, but always check with your doctor.

Some studies have shown that eating a diet high in fiber and low in animal fats, plus regular exercise and avoidance of tobacco products can also help reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.

It is important to remember that only about 25 percent of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer have identifiable risk factors, which means that the majority have no predisposing factors at all, and possibly no early symptoms either. Therefore, if we are to beat this cancer, a diligent screening program is needed with the goal of detecting abnormalities before any symptoms occur. Unfortunately, according the 2007 DPHHS report, only about half of adults age 50 and up in Montana have had a screening exam. Remember: Screening saves lives!

Michele Aitken is a certified gastroenterology registered nurse and the endoscopy manager at Community Medical Center.

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