Learn more about the importance of colon screenings.

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 150,000 American adults will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2018, but it is possible to prevent and treat this disease in many cases.

Knowing your risk and receiving the recommended screenings are important first steps. In the following guide, Haroon Choudry, MD, surgical oncologist, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, shares warning signs and facts about colorectal cancer.

Facts About Colorectal Cancer

“Colorectal cancer occurs when malignant cells form from the tissues of the colon and rectum,” says Dr. Choudry.

More than 95 percent of colorectal cancer cases begin with precancerous growths called adenomatous polyps. Removing these growths before they become cancerous can reduce your risk of cancer, but doctors can find these growths only through regular colorectal cancer screenings.

“With early detection, doctors can successfully treat more than 90 percent of people with colon cancer,” Dr. Choudry says. “A colonoscopy is one test we use to detect polyps and colon cancers in the lining of the colon and the rectum, especially before polyps become cancers.”

People over age 50 should receive regular screenings, including a colonoscopy, every 10 years. Other screening options include:

  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy
  • Stool tests
  • Virtual colonoscopy

Screening methods usually cause minimum discomfort, says Dr. Choudry. No matter what method of screening you use, the testing will help to significantly reduce your risk of dying from cancer.

Preventing Colorectal Cancer

Along with regular screenings, there are other ways you can reduce your risk. Dr. Choudry notes that the following increase your risk of colorectal cancer:

  • Heavy drinking
  • High-fat, high-protein, low-fiber diet
  • Smoking

Addressing these habits can decrease the risk of colon cancer by as much as 30 percent. Dr. Choudry advocates a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Hydration also aids in prevention by alleviating constipation and cleansing the bowels.

Warning Signs for Colorectal Cancer

Everyone, young and old, should keep these symptoms in mind: “Watch out for blood in your stool or a lot of black stools,” Dr. Choudry said. “And if you get blood work done and find out you are anemic, meaning your hemoglobin level is low, that can be an indication that a cancer is growing.”

Another important symptom is a change in your “stool caliber,” meaning the size or frequency of your stools. “If you used to have one bowel movement a day, and now you are not having one for days on end, that’s a red flag,” Dr. Choudry says.

Subtler signs include:

  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Weakness

Dr. Choudry says that although pain is not one of the bigger signs of colon cancer, you should take note of stomach discomfort. Pain is usually a symptom only of late-stage colorectal cancer.

If you begin to notice a change in your bowel habits, you may want to schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss the symptoms. If you’re over age 50, you’ll likely need a colonoscopy, but if you are younger and experiencing a change, you will probably just need to assess your diet or lifestyle.

It’s also crucial to tell your doctor about past digestive issues. Conditions like Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis may increase your risk for colon cancer, but a past diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome does not increase your risk.

Is Colorectal Cancer Treatable?

Though prevalent, colon cancer is treatable. Your doctor will discuss which of the several treatment options may be best for you.

“Treatment-wise, no colorectal cancer is the same, and a diagnosis affects each person differently,” Dr. Choudry says. “Treatment can involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of these treatments, and it may include clinical trials.”

Learn more about treatment for colorectal cancers and the steps you can take to prevent it or catch it early.