March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and a great time to educate yourself on the all-too-common disease. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths and the third most common cancer for both men and women. Below, we explore what causes colorectal cancer and how to prevent and detect it.
Understanding Colorectal Cancer
Colorectal cancer is a cancer that originates in the colon or rectum. Most colorectal cancers begin as a non-cancerous growth of tissue called a polyp. These polyps occur on the inner lining of the large intestine and grow over a span of 10 to 20 years. While the vast majority of polyps remain benign, about 10% progress into an invasive cancer which is referred to as adenocarcinoma.
If adenocarcinoma occurs, the cancer will eventually grow into the wall of the colon or rectum, and can spread to other parts of the body through blood vessels and lymph vessels. The stage of a colorectal cancer is determined by how deeply it has grown into the wall, and if it has spread beyond the colon or rectum.
Know Your Risk
Certain lifestyle choices and hereditary traits affect your risk of colorectal cancer.
Being overweight, smoking, heavy alcohol use, lack of exercise and eating too much red meat have all been linked to the disease. To reduce your risk, it’s imperative to stay active and maintain a healthy weight. Cut down on alcohol, avoid smoking tobacco, and incorporate more fruits, veggies and whole grains in your diet.
If you have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer, or suffer from medical conditions such as adenomatous polyps, chronic inflammatory bowel disease and/or diabetes, you have a higher risk of cancer developing in the colon or rectum.
Age is another factor; colorectal cancer is most common in people over 50. The US Preventive Service Task Force recommends beginning regular screening at this point to catch any polyps before they become cancerous. “The slow course of growth from precancerous polyp to invasive cancer provides a unique opportunity for the prevention and early detection of CRC.4 Screening can prevent cancer through the detection and removal of precancerous growths and can detect cancer at an early stage, when treatment is usually more successful” (Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2017-2019).
Talk to your doctor about your personal risk for colorectal cancer and stay vigilant about screenings.