Colorectal Cancer

The second leading cause of cancer-related deaths, only behind lung cancer, is none other than colorectal cancer. Although preventable, colorectal cancer claimed an estimated 52,890 lives in 2021 alone. In the same year, it is estimated that 149,500 individuals were newly diagnosed with this cancer.  

Colorectal cancer, unsurprisingly, is a type of cancer that begins in the large intestine (colon) or the rectum. Like any cancer, colorectal cancer begins when a cell with damaged DNA begins to duplicate at a rapid rate due to the damage.

These cells continue to divide unchecked, and eventually form a tumor. If left untreated, these cells will continue to grow into surrounding tissues, damaging them. In late stage cancer, these cells also can metastasize. This means that they travel to other parts of the body and begin growing there.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms include, but are not limited to: 

  • Persistent bowel habit disruption, including prolonged diarrhea or constipation as well as a consistent change in the consistency of your stool 
  • Rectal bleeding, blood in the stool 
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort 
  • Feeling a consistent need to defecate 
  • Physical weakness or fatigue 
  • Unexplainable weight loss 
  • Loss of appetite

Who is affected?

In a short sense, anyone can develop colorectal cancer. 

Colorectal cancer diagnoses are seen more commonly in men, as well as in African Americans. Tending to affect older groups, the median age of diagnoses is 67 years, with 78% of diagnoses being given to those that are 55 and older.

This does not mean that if these demographics do not apply to you that you are in the clear. According to the Colon Cancer Coalition, about 20% of those diagnosed with colorectal cancer are between the ages of 20 to 54. It is imperative that all individuals, regardless of your demographic, plan for your routine colorectal cancer screening every five to ten years, depending on your doctor’s recommendation.

Doctors recommend that individuals aged 45 and up should report for routine colorectal cancer screenings. While it is important that everyone receive their colorectal screenings on time to allow for an early diagnoses, older men and members of the African American community are, by statistics, more susceptible to developing colorectal cancer, since these groups are showing higher rates of incidence.  

Research is currently being conducted to understand the racial disparity in early-onset colorectal cancer. Andreana Holowatyi, PhD, MS, is exploring somatic mutations among patients of different racial groups to better understand why these groups are more susceptible to developing colorectal cancer. You can read more about her study on the website of the American Association for Cancer Research. 

Risk Factors

Family health history as well as personal health history is a huge factor when considering any disease, and colorectal cancer is not an exception. If you have a history of inflammatory intestinal conditions, like IBS, or if you have a family history of colon or rectal cancer, you are at an increased risk of developing this cancer. Discuss these details with your doctor so that you can both be aware of your risk. Talk to your doctor about your physical health and ask them any questions you have about these topics and their role in colorectal cancer prevention

In addition, there are habits you can implement in your life to improve your risk of developing cancer. Learn more here: 

Early Detection

Screening Types

You might be thinking, what is a screening, and how can it help? The goal of a screening is to detect cancer early, so that it can be taken care of early. The later cancer is detected, the more likely it has developed into a stage that is more detrimental to your health.

Screenings mitigate the likelihood of you developing a late-stage cancer, because screenings are typically conducted before the patient has any symptoms of the disease.  Individuals that are showing symptoms of colorectal cancer should schedule a screening immediately.

Showing symptoms of colorectal cancer can be scary but scheduling a screening will allow the soonest possible diagnoses and the highest shot you have at survival, should the symptoms be caused by it.  There are options when it comes to screenings.

Stool based tests:

Fecal immunochemical test, or FIT test, is a test that examines stool for evidence of blood. The patient provides a stool sample, and a small sample is tested for blood. This is also referred to as an FOBT exam.

DNA stool tests are exactly what they sound like. This test checks the DNA of stool cells to determine if there is any damage to them through genetic changes.

Scope based tests:

Sigmoidoscopy uses a tool called a sigmoidoscope, which is a thin, lighted tube that is inserted into the body through the anus to allow the doctor to identify any abnormalities in the lower colon, such as polyps. If abnormalities are present, tissue samples will be collected to check for cancerous cells. 

A colonoscopy is like the previous, however, the colonoscope, which is another lighted tube, travels through the rectum into the colon and allows the doctor to examine the entire colon. Again, if abnormalities are identified, tissue samples will be removed for identification to determine if they are cancerous. This is the most effective method of colon cancer screening. 

Other tests:

Scans are used when cases of late-stage colorectal cancer is found. CT scans are used to create images of the inside of the body to determine if the cancer has spread elsewhere, or metastasized.

Virtual colonoscopies can be conducted, and they are noninvasive, requiring no pain medication or anesthesia. These are conducted by acquiring x-rays of the patient using computed tomography, through which a computer generates a detailed image of the colon from the x-rays to identify any abnormalities within it.

Clinical trials are currently comparing this colonoscopy type with the others to determine its comparative effectiveness.

Studies have shown that the digital rectal exam, typically conducted as part of a routine physical exam, are not effective as a screening method for colon cancer. This exam involves the doctor or nurse physically examining the inside of the rectum with a lubricated, gloved hand, to feel for any abnormalities.

Deciding which test is best for you can be a difficult decision. It is best to speak with your doctor about the best method for you under their advisement.

Screenings Save Lives!

Watch as Ryan Reynolds completes his first ever routine colonoscopy at age 45, which turns out to have been a potentially life-saving colonoscopy.