Colorectal cancer is among the most prevalent and deadly of cancers. But it is also one of the most preventable, treatable and beatable — so long as it is caught on time.
With that in mind, observances like National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March are key to spreading the word on the importance of screenings and early treatment in the fight against the disease, the second-leading cancer killer in the United States.
This all-too-common cancer affects both men and women of all racial and ethnic groups, particularly those age 50 and older. And the older you get, the greater the chance of contracting it, especially if it runs in your family.
Other risk factors include having inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, a genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome). And lifestyle choices like lack of exercise, poor diet, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco use could also play a role.
Most of the time, colorectal cancer begins as precancerous polyps, also called abnormal growths, in the colon or rectum that can remain there for years before they become cancerous. Early on, they often don’t result in any noticeable symptoms.
And that’s why preventive screenings, done via a colonoscopy or other procedures, are so important. They allow those precancerous polyps to be found and removed before they have time to turn into a potentially deadly cancer. Screenings also present a great opportunity to find colorectal cancer in its early stages, when treatment is most effective.
Some of you might be asking yourself, “When is the best time to start getting screened?” Well, for many years the standard was beginning at age 50. However, in May 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force changed its colorectal cancer screening recommendation to age 45. Future screenings will be based on your own individual risk factors and the advice of your physician.
The advocacy efforts are working, and the proof is in the statistics. Today, about seven in 10 American adults ages 50 to 75 are up to date with their colorectal cancer screenings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s good, but we can do even better. And I can tell you that we here at The Wright Center are doing all we can to screen as many people as possible in hopes of bringing down the disease’s incidence levels across Northeast Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, researchers are looking to see if a diet low in animal fats and high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains —such as the Mediterranean Diet — can reduce one’s risk of colorectal cancer, as it does for coronary artery disease and diabetes.
And additional studies suggest that people can ward off the disease through exercising more, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting their alcohol intake and avoiding tobacco products. As it happens, The Wright Center’s Lifestyle Medicine program was designed for the exact purpose of showing patients how healthy living adjustments like these can prevent a host of chronic diseases, including cancer.
Additional research is investigating whether medicines and supplements can help prevent colorectal cancer. This disease is serious business, but hardly a death sentence — especially when you make the commitment to long-term preventative health. It’s a relatively easy and most worthy investment of your time.
Dr. Jelena Surla serves as the chief gastroenterology fellow at The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education, which provides eight residency and fellowship programs. The Wright Center’s mission is to improve the health and welfare of the communities we serve through inclusive and responsive health services and the sustainable renewal of an inspired, competent workforce that is privileged to serve. This mission is delivered through a Graduate Medical Education Safety-Net Consortium model that engages two complementary entities: The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education, The Wright Center for Community Health, a Federally Qualified Health Center Look-Alike and four partnering national Federally Qualified Health Centers.