Anyone with a colon can get colorectal cancer – a collective term that includes both colon cancer and rectal cancer. In the United States, it’s the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men and women. It's estimated that in 2012, 144,000 new cases will be diagnosed and that more than 51,000 people will die of this form of cancer. The lifetime chance of developing colorectal cancer is 1 in 20, with women facing a slightly lower risk than men.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends colorectal cancer screening beginning at age 50 for both women and men.
Did You Know?
Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will cover preventive care services, including checkups, vaccinations and screening tests, at no cost to you. Learn more.
Overall, only about 6% of men in the U.S. develop colorectal cancer, but several factors increase your risk:
Age: Men younger than 40 almost never develop colorectal cancer. Over 90% of the cases are in men over 50.
Family History: If people in your immediate family or near relations had colorectal cancer at a young age, you should be screened earlier.
Previous Colorectal Cancer: If you've had cancer removed already, you're at higher risk to develop a new one.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease: If you have had a condition such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis for several years, your risk of colorectal cancer goes up.
Certain lifestyle factors appear to raise the risk of colorectal cancer. They include:
Drinking more than two alcoholic drinks per day.
A high-fat diet, with fat coming mostly from meat.
What Is Colorectal Cancer?
The colon is the large intestine and the rectum is the last six inches of intestine, connecting the colon to the anus. In the U.S., for both sexes, about 72% of cancer cases occur in the colon and 28% in the rectum.
Colorectal cancer usually develops slowly, beginning first as small growth called a polyp. Polyps may grow larger and eventually turn into cancer. The entire process of a polyp transforming into cancer usually takes several years.
After cancer develops, it grows into the wall of the colon and eventually metastasizes, or spreads. Most of the time, this process is preventable with proper screening.
Colorectal cancer symptoms include change in bowel habits (diarrhea or constipation), blood in the stool, black stools, abdominal pain, and weakness.
How Can I Prevent Colorectal Cancer?
The good news is that colorectal cancer is usually preventable. The number one way to prevent it is to get screened. Men and women should begin colorectal cancer screening at age 50. If you have colorectal cancer in your family or other risk factors, tell your doctor. You may need screening at a younger age.
Colonoscopy: You've probably heard of this procedure, which entails the insertion of a flexible tube into your anus, while you are under anesthesia. Your gastroenterologist (stomach doctor) can usually see and remove polyps or cancer before it spreads. If your colon is "clean," you probably won’t need another colonoscopy for several years.
Flexible Sigmoidoscopy: This scaled-down version of a colonoscopy is another reasonable option.
Fecal Occult Blood Test: This involves you smearing stool on a paper card and bringing it to your doctor each year. Your gift is then checked for blood, because colorectal cancers often bleed. Blood in your stool usually earns you a colonoscopy, to look for cancer.