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Defend yourself against colorectal cancer

Cancer of the colon or rectum—commonly called colorectal cancer—is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 108,000 cases of colon cancer and almost 41,000 cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in 2008. Combined, colon and rectum cancer are expected to cause almost than 50,000 fatalities.

Effective screening tools to detect this disease when it is still highly curable are found in most doctors’ offices. Yet only about half of all Americans age 50 or older chose to have a screening procedure within the past five years.

That’s troubling because the risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age. In addition, having a family history of the disease, colorectal polyps or inflammatory bowel disease makes the risk of colorectal cancer significant. Doctors say controlling weight, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol to one drink daily for women and two for men, exercising and eating low-fat meals rich in fruits and vegetables can help prevent the disease.

And don’t overlook dietary fiber. Although the medical consensus on fiber’s ability to fight colorectal cancer has been seesawing due to some contradictory findings, the largest study ever undertaken ended in 2000. It maintains that fiber is indeed a powerful cancer fighter. The 15-year study, involving nine European countries and 400,000 people, suggests a high-fiber diet can reduce colorectal cancer risk by 40 percent. And no matter which study is correct, fiber has already been proven to protect your heart.

How it develops

Colorectal cancer attacks the large intestine—the long digestive organ that removes solid waste from the body. In 95 percent of all cases, the first signs of trouble are benign, precancerous polyps growing inside the rectum or colon. Simply removing them before they become cancerous usually prevents the disease.

Family ties

With a blood test, doctors can find genes that cause the two inherited colorectal cancers that so far have been identified, namely:

  • Familial adenomatous polyposis, a very rare defect marked by hundreds of rectal polyps that appear in the teenage years. Left untreated, cancer develops in nearly every patient by age 45.
  • Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer accounts for 10 percent of colorectal cancer. It’s marked by handfuls of polyps. About 80 percent of flawed gene carriers develop cancer.

Screening for cancer

The American Cancer Society recommends one of these programs for everyone ages 50 and older:

  • a yearly fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test
  • a stool DNA test as recommended by your doctor
  • a sigmoidoscopy every five years
  • a barium enema every five years
  • a colonoscopy every 10 years
  • a CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every five years

In addition, you should report any of these symptoms to your doctor:

  • changes in bowel habits
  • bright-red or black stool
  • abdominal pain and cramps
  • unexplained weight loss
  • exhaustion

Surgery followed by chemotherapy is often required to treat colorectal cancer.

How it develops

Family ties

Screening for cancer