Stopping Cancer: It's Not a Pain in the Butt

Getting screened regularly for colorectal cancer saves lives and money

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. In observance of the month, the American Cancer Society and other health-promoting organizations are disseminating information about the highly preventable disease.

In the United States, colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum) is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women. It is the second major cause of cancer-related deaths. It is estimated that 51,400 people will die this year as a result of colorectal cancer.

Despite the high death rates, colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable kinds of cancer.

Colorectal cancer most commonly affects people over the age of 50. However, people younger than 50 are also at risk of developing the cancer, especially if they have certain risk factors, including a personal or family history of colorectal cancer; a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease; having inherited genetic syndromes; and some factors related to lifestyle choices.

Approximately five to ten percent of individuals who develop colorectal cancer have inherited genes that cause the cancer. Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) are the two most common genetic diseases associated with colorectal cancer. Turcot syndrome and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome also drastically increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer, as well as other cancers.

Various studies have found that certain lifestyle-related factors - such as physical inactivity, obesity, smoking, and diet, among others - are linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

According to one study of nearly 185,000 people, individuals who had smoked cigarettes over a long period of time faced a 30 to 50 percent increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. Senior author Michael J. Thun, M.D., M.S., vice president emeritus of epidemiology and surveillance research at the American Cancer Society, said that his team's study offers one more reason to quit smoking.

Other studies have shown that physical inactivity increases the risk of colorectal cancer. Similarly, consistent exercise can reduce one's risk of dying from the disease. One study from the Washington University School of Medicine found that people who exercised consistently for 10 years or more had the lowest risk of dying from colon cancer.

Exercise helps prevent and reduce the severity of a number of diseases, says Kathleen Y. Wolin, Sc.D., first author of the Washington University Study. In addition to its disease-fighting benefits, she continues, exercise makes people feel better, both physically and mentally. Physical activity can even be beneficial after a cancer diagnosis.

Although more research is needed in order to determine the effects of diet on the risk of developing colorectal cancer, some studies have shown that diets high in red and processed meats can increase the risk of colorectal cancer.

Obesity can also influence one's risk of developing and dying from colorectal cancer, especially among men.

According to the strongest evidence, regular screening is the most effective way to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer. In fact, studies have shown that as many as 60 percent of deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented if everyone 50 years of age and older were screened regularly. Regular screening increases the chance of finding pre-cancerous polyps, allowing doctors to remove them before they develop into cancer. If the polyps have already developed into cancer, regular screening increases the chance catching the cancer early, when treatment is most effective.

Current guidelines recommend that people begin screening for colorectal cancer once they reach 50 years of age. However, getting tested sooner and more frequently is recommended for individuals with a personal or family history of colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer. The risk of colorectal cancer is also greater in those with inflammatory bowel disease. As such, individuals with inflammatory bowel disease should get tested earlier and more often than healthy people.

Although regular colorectal cancer screening is recommended for all people until they reach 75 years of age, some patients older than 75 years may need to continue screening.

In addition to saving lives, colorectal cancer screening programs may drastically save taxpayers' money. In a study of colon cancer screening programs in New York and New Jersey, researchers found that such programs can cut in half the costs of future treatment. Through screening, doctors can find the cancer, or pre-cancerous polyps, early enough to provide the most effective treatments. Attacking the disease early means that less patients have to go through a lengthy and expensive treatment process. Consequently, more money is saved.

Even though colorectal cancer is a highly common disease, it is also extremely preventable. "Even a cursory glance at survival rates correlated with stage at diagnosis shows that early detection of colon cancer results in a very good chance of long term survival" said Joseph V. Madia, MD, dailyRx's medical editor. In order to save money, save lives, and improve the quality of life of many, it is important for all at-risk individuals to get screened regularly for colorectal cancer.

Review Date: 
March 2, 2011