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Learn about your colorectal cancer risk
Information and screening saves lives
Published Wednesday, March 13, 2013 11:03 am
by Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer found in adults. According to the The American Cancer Society more than 141,000 people were diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer in 2012, of which more than 16,000 were African American.

Unfortunately, this resulted in about 49,000 deaths; 7,100 of those were African American. African Americans are 20 percent more likely to be diagnosed with CRC and 45 percent more likely to die from the disease compared to Whites. Although rates of CRC continue to decrease, it is still one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed. The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age.  In fact, more than 90 percent of colorectal cancer cases occur in persons aged 50 years or older. 

In general, the number of people developing and dying from colorectal cancer has been decreasing each year. This decrease is largely due to successful screening tests that allow for the discovery and removal of pre-cancerous growths (polyps) before they turn into cancer.  Early detection and treatment can lead to improved medical outcomes.

What causes colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer usually develops slowly over a period of years from the cells lining the inside of the colon and rectum. It begins as a polyp (called an adenoma), then develops into an adenocarcinoma, which is cancerous. Almost all adenomas of the colon and rectum develop into adenocarcinomas if left untreated.

Risk factors that contribute to the development of colorectal cancer include a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, inflammatory bowel disease, or certain hereditary diseases. Also, lifestyle factors such as lack of exercise, poor diet, obesity, and alcohol and tobacco use may contribute to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.  African American men and women who have these risk factors, especially those who are age 50 or older, are at an even greater risk of developing colorectal cancer.

How is colorectal cancer detected?
Routine screening for colorectal cancer is crucial for early detection. The American Cancer Society recommends that, beginning at age 50, both men and women have a yearly stool blood test (a test to find small amounts of hidden blood in the stool), plus one of the following exams: 

• Flexible sigmoidoscopy (a procedure that allows the doctor to look at the inside of the rectum and part of the colon) every five years.

• Double contrast barium enema (a series of X-rays of the colon and rectum which are taken after the patient is given a barium dye enema followed by an injection of air into the lower bowel) every five years.

• Colonoscopy (a procedure that allows the doctor to look at the inside of the rectum and colon) every 10 years. 

For individuals over the age of 50, Medicare should cover the cost of these tests.  It is very important that you discuss these screening options with your physician. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, you may need to be screened at a younger age. You should also see a physician immediately if you have any of the following symptoms:

• Change in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days,

• Feeling of needing to have a bowel movement that doesn't go away after doing so,

• Bleeding from the rectum or blood in the stool,

• Cramping or steady stomach pain,

• Unexplained weakness, fatigue and/or weight loss

Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have cancer, but you should be evaluated to be sure. 

Is colorectal cancer curable?
The standard screening tests often find colorectal cancer at an early stage, thereby greatly improving the likelihood that it will be cured. 

Cancers found early (stage I or II) have a 75-90 percent chance for cure with surgery, whereas cancers found at a more advanced stage (stage III or IV) have a less than 50 percent chance of cure and may require multiple therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

Again, early detection often results in less advanced cancer that can be cured.  In addition to a healthy lifestyle, routine screening should be done on a regular basis for those over the age of 50.

Do you need further information or have questions or comments about this article? See the American Cancer Society’s website at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/colon-and-rectal or call us toll-free at 1-877-530-1824. For more information about the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity please visit: www.wakehealth.edu/MACHE.


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