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Understanding Colorectal Cancer: Symptoms, Prevention, and Screening

Understanding Colorectal Cancer: Symptoms, Prevention, and Screening

March is recognized as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness about this common but highly preventable form of cancer. Colorectal cancer, which affects the colon or rectum, is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. In this blog post, we'll delve into the essential aspects of colorectal cancer, including its symptoms, risk factors, prevention strategies, and available screening options.

What is Colorectal Cancer? Colorectal cancer, also known as bowel cancer or colon cancer, occurs when abnormal cells in the colon or rectum grow uncontrollably, forming tumors. Over time, these tumors can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body, leading to serious complications if left untreated.

Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer: Several factors can increase an individual's risk of developing colorectal cancer, including:

  • Age (risk increases with age)
  • Personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases (such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis)
  • Certain genetic syndromes (such as Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis)
  • Sedentary lifestyle and poor diet (high in red or processed meats, low in fiber)
  • Obesity
  • Smoking and heavy alcohol consumption

Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer: Colorectal cancer often develops without causing any symptoms in its early stages. However, as the disease progresses, individuals may experience:

  • Changes in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of stool)
  • Blood in the stool or rectal bleeding
  • Abdominal discomfort or cramping
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Persistent abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Feeling of incomplete bowel emptying

Prevention Strategies: While certain risk factors for colorectal cancer, such as age and family history, cannot be changed, there are steps individuals can take to reduce their risk of developing the disease:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight through regular exercise and a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  2. Limit consumption of red and processed meats, as these have been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
  3. Quit smoking and avoid heavy alcohol consumption.
  4. Get regular physical activity, as exercise can help lower the risk of colorectal cancer.
  5. Consider genetic counseling and testing if there is a family history of colorectal cancer or genetic syndromes associated with the disease.

Screening for Colorectal Cancer: Screening is an essential tool for detecting colorectal cancer early, when it is most treatable. Several screening methods are available, including:

  1. Colonoscopy: Considered the gold standard for colorectal cancer screening, colonoscopy allows doctors to examine the entire colon and rectum for abnormalities or precancerous polyps. During the procedure, any polyps found can be removed and biopsied.
  2. Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT): This non-invasive test detects blood in the stool, which can be a sign of colorectal cancer or other gastrointestinal issues. Patients collect stool samples at home and send them to a laboratory for analysis.
  3. Flexible Sigmoidoscopy: Similar to colonoscopy but examines only the lower portion of the colon. It is less invasive than colonoscopy but may miss abnormalities higher up in the colon.
  4. Stool DNA Test: This test looks for specific DNA markers associated with colorectal cancer in stool samples. It is less commonly used than other screening methods but may be an option for individuals who are unwilling or unable to undergo colonoscopy.

Conclusion: Colorectal cancer is a significant public health concern, but it is also one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer when detected early. By understanding the risk factors, symptoms, and available screening options, individuals can take proactive steps to reduce their risk of developing colorectal cancer or catch it at an early, more treatable stage. During Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and throughout the year, let's spread awareness and encourage everyone to prioritize their colorectal health through regular screening and healthy lifestyle choices.

Remember, early detection saves lives!

For questions, concerns, or learn more please contact:

Jill Brown RN, BSN, OCN, CBCN

Heather Kremer, RN