The Test is easy!

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. It is estimated that over 145,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2019. It is currently the third most diagnosed cancer, excluding skin cancers, among both men and women in the US.

Colorectal cancer is cancer of the large intestines (colon) or the rectum. These can be separate cancers, but they are often referred to as ‘colorectal cancer’ because their symptoms, treatments, and potential causes can be the same. This cancer often begins as small noncancerous polyps in the colon or rectum, which if left untreated can become cancerous. These polyps are often small and produce little to no symptoms. Early detection and removal are important in the fight against colorectal cancer.

While polyps may be asymptomatic, some symptoms of colorectal cancer are:

  • Changes in bowel habits, such as sudden and persistent diarrhea, constipation, or changes in the consistency of stool
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
  • Severe and persistent abdominal discomfort, such as gas, pain, cramps
  • Weakness/fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

It is important to remember that these symptoms are linked to numerous health and gastrointestinal issues and should be examined by a medical professional before a clinical diagnosis of colorectal cancer is given.

As with many cancers, the cause is unknown. Cancerous cell mutations appear randomly in most people. There are some rare cases which an inherited gene mutation is linked to colorectal cancers. These genes can be detected through genetic testing. They make up a small percentage of cases of colorectal cancers in the US. These genes are known as HNPCC and FAP.

There are other factors that put someone at risk for colorectal cancers. The Western diet (a diet high in fat and low in fiber) has been linked to higher occurrence of the cancer, and more research is being done to determine the reason this occurs. Other risk factors include:

  • Being over the age of 50
  • African Americans are more prone to colorectal cancer, than other races
  • Nutrition – eat a diet of good, clean (unprocessed) foods and whole grains to promote heart health
  • Having a personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Having an inflammatory intestinal disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease
  • Presence of the previously mentioned inherited genes, HNPCC or FAP
  • Family history of colorectal cancer
  • Leading a sedentary lifestyle
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Consuming large amounts of alcohol
  • Previous radiation therapy of the abdomen

While the overall number of deaths from this disease is dropping, which researchers believe is due to earlier screenings and better treatment options, the number of deaths in people younger than 55 from this disease is on the rise. For this reason many doctors have started conducting screenings earlier and are recommending a more regular screening schedule. New testing options are available and sometimes traditional colonoscopy procedures are not necessary until the patient reaches a certain age (usually 50 years old). Doctors will now send patients home with an at-home stool test that once completed is mailed back to the physician’s office and will be sent off for testing. This can identify any blood in the stool or other warning factors that may be present.

It is important to get yourself tested for this disease and to speak to your loved ones about their screening options, as well. The earlier any issue is detected the better for you and your family. Speak with your doctor about your colon health and be honest about any issues that you may be having, no matter how small. Your physician and their team are professionals and they are there to help.

Your local pharmacist can also be an integral part of your colorectal health team. Reach out to any pharmacist with questions. They are here to help you in any way that they can and point you in the right direction when it comes to your continued health.

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