March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Did you know that colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the United States?

Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts within the colon or rectum and can spread throughout the body. Although rate of colorectal cancer has been declining by about 1% a year in older adults, according to the American Cancer Society, the rates in people younger than 55 has steadily been increasing by 1% to 2% a year since the mid-1990s.

Signs and Symptoms
Unfortunately, for many, the first few stages of colorectal cancer may have no signs or symptoms. This is why it’s important to be screened regularly. In addition, many symptoms overlap with other conditions.

Symptoms can include:

  • Bleeding from the rectum
  • Change in stool color (red-black)
  • A change in bowel habits that lasts more than a few days
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Narrow stool
  • Cramping and abdominal pain
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Anemia

To reduce your risk of developing colon cancer:

  • Get Screened. The number one thing you can do for prevention is get screened. The recommendation is to start getting colorectal screenings at age 45 for men and women. This process includes a colonoscopy, when a small camera is passed through the colon to view the inner tissues. Any questionable tissues will be removed and tested for the presence of cancer cells. Higher risk individuals may need to be screened sooner and should discuss the matter with their healthcare provider.
  • Diet. A diet rich in plant-based whole foods and low in red and processed meat has been shown to reduce the risk of many diseases, including colorectal cancer. Studies have shown a strong association between colorectal cancer and eating more than 18 ounces of red meat (such as beef, pork or lamb) a week. Research also shows an increased incidence of many cancers from eating processed meats such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, deli meat and those in ready-made meals, even in small amounts. Conversely, research shows that diets high in fiber (plant-based whole foods) are associated with low incidents of colorectal cancer.
  • Exercise. The more active you are, the lower your risk for colorectal cancer becomes. Some studies show that physically active individuals can reduce their risk by as much as 24%. Aim to meet the recommended 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity activity. This includes both cardiovascular and strength training exercises and stretching to prevent injury. Choosing activities that you enjoy will help reduce stress and keep exercise sustainable.
  • Alcohol and Tobacco. Drinking an average of three alcoholic drinks or more per day increases the risk of developing colorectal cancers. It’s important to remember that this is an average, so if you don’t drink during the work week and drink heavily on the weekends, you may still fall into this category. What is considered a drink? 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. Tobacco use is also heavily linked to an increased incidence of colorectal cancer, and studies have also shown that tobacco use also increases the likelihood of death due to colorectal cancer.

Genetics and Family History
While we cannot change our genes, knowing your family history and risk can help. Having a parent, sibling or child with colorectal cancer increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer yourself, along with a family history of conditions such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC) or Lynch Syndrome. Individuals of African descent are also more likely to develop colorectal cancer.

Other health conditions may also increase your risk, such inflammatory bowel disease (IBS,) ulcerative colitis (UC), previous colorectal cancer, development of high-risk adenomas (polyps) or ovarian cancer.

Colorectal Cancer Statistics | How Common Is Colorectal Cancer? | American Cancer Society
Prevention | Colorectal Cancer Alliance
Exercise Reduces Colon Cancer Risk | Sharp HealthCare
Colorectal Cancer Prevention – NCI

Dana Mealing, RDN is the community nutrition educator in the Tevis Center for Wellness.

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