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Colorectal cancer is a cancer of the colon or rectum, which is also known as your large intestine. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 104,610 new cases of colon cancer and 43,340 new cases of rectal cancer in the United States in 2020.
With colorectal cancer our goal is to identify it before it becomes cancer or during the very early stages of disease. A procedure called a colonoscopy gives a gastroenterologist a direct view of the colon. Through this procedure we can identify a polyp – a little extra bit of tissue in the colon -- that may become colon cancer. If we see a polyp, we remove it during the procedure, so it doesn’t grow into a cancer. The polyp is then sent for further testing to determine if it is pre-cancerous or cancerous.
There are various colorectal cancer risk factors. I like to stress to my patients that there are some colorectal cancer risk factors that we can change, modify and decrease, while there are others we can’t change or decrease (such as family history or genetics).
The colorectal cancer risk factors that we may be able to change are often related to making healthier lifestyle choices. These lifestyle changes are the same recommendations that reduce your risk of heart disease and can lead to better overall health when we practice healthy habits.
It’s important to note that individuals from certain racial and ethnic backgrounds have been found to be at an increased risk for colorectal cancer. We do not understand necessarily why this is but notice a higher risk in the following groups:
We consider colorectal cancer to be a preventable disease. That’s why a family history is so important. When I meet a patient, I spend a lot of time taking a detailed family history. This helps to identify if a patient may be in one of the groups of individuals who are at higher risk for colon cancer (among other cancers) and this helps to determine at what age screenings should begin.
The best advice I can give to all patients is to make lifestyle changes to help you take better control of your overall health. These include a balanced, healthy diet with moderate exercise. Even just taking a walk or using the stairs instead of the elevator can help improve your overall health. Also, spend time talking to your family and learning about your family medical history. You can discover trends that can be brought to your doctor’s attention and determine if you should see a GI specialist to start screening early. You’re never too young to have that conversation.