What you need to know about colorectal cancer

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month — its purpose is to help educate people about this type of cancer, and how it can be prevented and best treated. Colorectal cancer, cancer of the colon or rectum, is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths among men and women.

Rushda Mumtaz, M.D., a board-certified gastroenterologist on the medical staff at Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital, St. Luke’s Medical Center, and in practice at Phoenix Gastroenterology Specialists, a Physician Group of Arizona, Inc., practice, answers common questions about colorectal cancer and how best to reduce one’s risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Q: What is colorectal cancer? — A: Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in either the colon or the rectum. Nearly all types of colorectal cancers start as a polyp — a noncancerous (benign) growth that begins in the lining of the colon or rectum — which can become cancerous if untreated. Symptoms associated with colorectal cancer include rectal bleeding, change in bowel habits, abdominal pain, weakness, unexplained anemia and weight loss. People experiencing any of these symptoms should consult a physician immediately.

Q: Who is at risk of developing colorectal cancer? — A: The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age — 90 percent of colorectal cancer cases occur in adults age 50 years and older. However, researchers have recently uncovered an alarming trend — the incidence of rectal cancer in people under 40 years of age has increased steadily by 3.8 percent for the past 20 years. Some risk factors for colorectal cancer include:

Age – primarily in persons age 50 and older; Family history of any type of colorectal cancer; History of bowel disease; Race or ethnic background – specifically African Americans and Ashkenazi Jews; Diet high in red meat; Lack of exercise; Being overweight/obese; Smoking; Alcohol use; Type 2 diabetes.

Q: If I don’t have symptoms, do I still need a screening? — A: Absolutely. There are very few symptoms associated with colorectal cancer, so screenings are vital. Colorectal cancer is a very preventable and curable cancer, if detected in its early stages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if everyone age 50 years and older was screened regularly, as many as 60 percent of the deaths from this cancer could be avoided.

Q: What screenings are available and when do I get one? — A: It’s recommended that you have regular screenings beginning at 50 years of age, and earlier if you have a family history or other risk factors. When it comes to colorectal screenings, there are several options, but colonoscopies remain the gold standard. For people who are unwilling or unable to undergo a traditional colonoscopy, there are other options. For example, a virtual colonoscopy is a computed tomography (CT) scan of the colon. It’s less invasive and doesn’t require sedation. However, it cannot detect polyps less than one centimeter in size, and therefore should only be used if someone is either unable or unwilling to undergo a colonoscopy.

In addition to regular screenings, physicians recommend a high-fiber, low-fat diet, regular exercise and quitting smoking to decrease one’s risk of colorectal cancer. There is also some evidence that the use of certain medications, like aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. Individuals should seek professional medical advice before taking these types of medications for the purpose of reducing colorectal cancer risks.

Rushda Mumtaz, M.D., is a board-certified gastroenterologist on the medical staff at Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital, St. Luke’s Medical Center, and in practice at Phoenix Gastroenterology Specialists, a Physician Group of Arizona, Inc., practice. For a referral to a primary care physician or specialist, call 1-877-351-WELL (9355).

This information is provided by Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital and St. Luke’s Medical Center as general information only and is not intended to replace the advice of a physician.