Illness and disease prevention is something that may seem like such a simple part of comprehensive medical care, but in reality is an integral part of the medical field that can truly be the determinant between life and death. This is particularly relevant when discussing colorectal cancer, where screening has been labeled the number one way to prevent or detect the disease in its early stage, when it is most treatable.1 For this reason, March has been designated National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, with the goal of educating the general public about colorectal cancer and the best ways to prevent and address it.
Colorectal cancer is a form of cancer that is localized in the colon and/or rectum, which are components of an individual’s digestive tract. While anyone can be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, it is typically found in individuals aged 45 years and older, with a generally equal lifetime risk for men and women (1 in 23 and 1 in 25, respectively). Some increased risk factors include a family history of the cancer or colorectal polyps, inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s Disease, and being of Black/African American or Ashkenazi Jewish descent.1 In the United States, colorectal cancer is the 3rd most commonly diagnosed and 2nd most common cause of cancer death in men and women combined.1,3 Approximately 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer annually and approximately 50,000 die annually from the disease. The American Cancer Society predicts that around 52,000 Americans will die from colorectal cancer in 2022.3
Most colorectal cancers begin as polyps, which are abnormal tissue outgrowths, in the colon or rectum. While a polyp itself is not necessarily a malignant growth, it can become an unregulated tissue outgrowth that leads to tumors and therefore, colorectal cancer. If polyps are detected early, through screening, they can be removed to prevent them from turning into cancer. Colorectal cancer is able to spread as it is in the walls of the colon/rectum, and the cancer cells can grow into the blood or lymph vessels, allowing for facilitation of the cancer cells to different regions of the body.3
As aforementioned, colorectal cancer is most common in individuals over the age of 45. However, in recent years, there has been an uptick in young-onset colorectal cancer. The rates of colorectal cancer for people under the age of 50 have increased 2.2% each year from 2007-2016.1 For that reason, it is more important than ever for people to be attentive of their health and get regular screenings starting at age 45. However, those who have a family history of the disease are encouraged to begin screening earlier, as 25-30% of colorectal cancer patients have a family history of the disease.2
While the various risks associated with colorectal cancer can certainly cause alarm, we are fortunate that this disease can easily be prevented and treated in its earliest stages, so long as it is detected through regular screening. While everyone over the age of 45 should be getting tested regularly, anyone at any time can get tested if they have any concerns. In particular, individuals from Black, indigenous, Asian, and Ashkenazi Jewish background are encouraged to test regularly, as there are increased colorectal cancer incidence and mortality rates for individuals of these races and ethnicities.2 With more than 20 million Americans that are eligible for screening not doing so,2 they risk putting themselves in a less preventable or treatable colorectal cancer situation.
Thankfully, there are a plethora of organizations that dedicate their efforts to expanding accessibility to colorectal cancer screenings as well as general education about the disease. Of course, speaking to your primary care physician is a great first step towards ensuring the maintenance of your colorectal health and can help open discussions about prevention and treatment if necessary. By taking the necessary proactive steps, we can all work to drive down the incidence and mortality rates of colorectal cancer, protecting ourselves and loved ones, one screening at a time.