Author: 
Carla Strom, Office of Cancer Health Equity, Wake Forest School of Medicine

Colorectal Cancer: Why Screening Matters

Nearly 50,000 people lose their lives to colorectal cancer each year. It is the fourth most common cancer in the United States overall (behind breast, lung, and prostate cancer), the second leading cause of cancer death among men, third leading cause of cancer death among women, and a leading cause of death among Hispanics. 

Why should I be concerned about colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer, cancer that begins in the large intestine, occurs in both men and women, and in people of all ages. Although the United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends colorectal cancer screening for adults ages 50 to 85, it is still important to see a doctor if you have a family history or experience any of the below symptoms.  Early stages of colorectal cancer does not usually produce noticeable symptoms.  However, symptoms can include:

  • Constipation
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloody stool

If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to see a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

How do I get checked for colorectal cancer?

Screening is especially important in detecting colorectal cancer because sometimes the disease progresses without symptoms, or the symptoms are attributed to other causes. For example, some patients bleed internally, but they don't realize they're losing blood until a routine medical exam shows anemia.

There are four ways to screen for colorectal cancer (while colonoscopy is considered the gold standard):

  • Fecal occult blood test: a test that uses a microscope to look for blood in your stool
  • Sigmoidoscopy: an exam that looks inside the lower part of your colon
  • Barium enema: x-rays of your lower gastrointestinal tract
  • Colonoscopy: an exam that looks inside the lower part of your colon

People with a family history of colorectal cancer should generally be screened no later than the age of forty, or ten years prior to their relative(s) diagnosis. For example, if your father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer when he was 45, you should be screened at age 35. Learn about your family history and talk to your healthcare provider about the appropriate screening schedule.

Colonoscopy is considered the gold standard in screening as if anything suspicious is found, it can be immediately removed and biopsied. Doctors recommend this screening at age 50 for most people. In most cases, unless cancer or a polyp – small clumps of cells that form on the lining of the colon – is found, you will not need a colonoscopy again for 10 years. Although, the preparation the night before a colonoscopy can be unpleasant for some, the actual procedure is straight forward and administered while under sedation. Most importantly, screening could save your life! 

When found early, colon cancer can be cured!

What can I do to reduce my risk of colorectal cancer?

In addition to getting screened, you can reduce your risk of colorectal cancer in the following ways:

  • Eat a high-fiber, low-fat diet that contains lots of grains, fruits and vegetables
  • Limit how much meat you eat
  • Avoid processed food
  • Use olive oil for cooking
  • Quit smoking
  • Exercise regularly

Studies have shown that aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs may help prevent colorectal cancer. Inflammation is the body's response to stress, it helps the body heal wounds and other injuries. However, inflammation may also trigger cancer cell growth which can lead to developing certain conditions such as colorectal cancer. Blocking those signals with anti-inflammatory drugs likely prevents that growth.  It’s important to talk to your doctor before taking this medication to discuss the best methods for reducing your risk for colorectal cancer.

For more information:

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center (336) 713-2271 or wakehealth.edu/Comprehensive-Cancer-Center/

Instituto Nacional de Cáncer 1-800-4-CANCER or cancer.gov/espanol