Every March is Colorectal and Colon Cancer Awareness Month. This month is to honor survivors, to remember those who have passed from the disease, and to bring awareness to those who may need to schedule colon cancer testing. Through awareness, colon cancer and colorectal cancer can be detected earlier. As colon cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer in the United States, early detection can save many lives. Read on to learn more about Colon Cancer Awareness Month and how you can spread awareness, more about colon cancer itself, what its risk factors are, and more about colonoscopy, the gold standard for colon cancer detection. 

Wear Dark Blue on March 1

March 1 is the official Colon Cancer Awareness Day and it’s a great day to wear dark blue or to don a dark blue ribbon to show your support for colon cancer awareness. Different organizations that support colon cancer awareness or research also have different hashtags on various social media platforms, so that you can make your support public. For instance, The American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy asks you to use the hashtag #ColonoscopyIsEasier if you want to share your stories or want to spread awareness. The Colorectal Cancer Alliance uses the hashtag #PreventColonCancer, which you can share on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. And FightColonCancer.org asks you to post a picture of yourself (a selfie) with the hashtag #StrongArmSelfie on Instagram or Twitter, and one of their sponsors will donate $1 toward the nonprofit. 

Colon Cancer Statistics At a Glance

While it’s never the intention to scare people into getting tested or screened for colon cancer, it’s also wise to take a look at the statistics for colon cancer, because they can be quite staggering. Colon cancer (or colorectal cancer, which is a cancer of both the colon and rectum) is the second-leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the US today. It’s estimated that nearly 150,000 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer in 2020 and that over 50,000 will die of it. The chance of developing colon cancer (for both men and women) is about 1 in 23 over the lifespan. 

The survival rates are perhaps the most important thing to look at, and this is why early detection is so important. Keep in mind that colon cancer is largely asymptomatic until it has reached its later stages. Early-stage colon cancer typically has no symptoms. This is why it’s essential to keep up with regular checkups with your doctor, and also to schedule your colonoscopy when it’s time. 

  • Stage I colon cancer has a survival rate of 80 to 95 percent 
  • Stage II colon cancer has a survival rate of 55 to 80 percent
  • Stage III colon cancer has a survival rate of 40 percent
  • Stage IV colon cancer has a survival rate of 10 percent 

Stages do have substages, and often symptoms do not present until late in the third stage to the beginning of the fourth stage. Unfortunately, as seen above, survival rates drop dramatically during this period. If colon cancer is detected during stage I or II, the chances of survival are much higher. 

Risk Factors for Colon Cancer

When it comes to risk factors for colon cancer, there are some that are unavoidable and some that are within your control, such as lifestyle factors or habits. Researchers and doctors are still largely unsure about what causes colon cancer but can pinpoint some genetic factors as well as some lifestyle choices. Some genetic or otherwise unavoidable factors that can contribute to colon cancer risk include:

  • Ashkenazi Jewish or African American heritage
  • A family history of colorectal cancer, polyps, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or a personal history of polyps or IBD
  • Age: Those who are older are more likely to develop colon cancer
  • Family history or personal history of an inherited syndrome, such as Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
  • Having type 2 diabetes

There are other risk factors for colon cancer that are within your power to control, such as how much you exercise and what you eat or drink. Some of these risk factors for colon cancer include:

  • Being overweight or obese: Those with a body mass index (BMI) above the “normal” range have a higher risk of colon cancer
  • Eating a diet high in red meat or processed meat, especially in women 
  • Smoking 
  • Overconsumption of alcohol
  • Leading a sedentary lifestyle

If you are struggling with managing your weight or diet, with quitting smoking, or overconsuming alcohol, reach out to your healthcare provider for help in managing your symptoms. 

When Should I Be Screened? 

Prior to 2018, the American Cancer Society had recommended that both men and women of average risk schedule their first colonoscopy or first colorectal cancer screening at age 50. However, in recent years, colon cancer diagnosis has been prevalent in younger adults, so in May 2018, the American Cancer Society officially lowered its screening guidelines from age 50 to age 45 for both men and women. If you’re nearing the age of 45 and are of average risk for colon cancer, talk to your physician or healthcare provider about setting up your first colonoscopy. Just bear in mind that not all insurance companies have jumped on board with the new guidelines yet - so be sure to discuss with them also. 

If you are of above-average risk or are of high risk, you may want to schedule a colonoscopy sooner. Your doctor will likely let you know if you are of high or above-average risk if you have shared your personal and family medical history with him or her. Above-average or high-risk factors would include:

  • A family or personal history of polyps or colorectal cancer
  • Family history or personal history of inherited syndromes (e.g., Lynch syndrome, FAP)
  • A personal or family history of IBD (ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease)
  • A personal history of radiation to the pelvic or stomach area to treat cancer

If you meet these criteria and have not informed your physician, you should do so, because you may want to schedule a colonoscopy sooner than age 45. 

Colonoscopy as the Gold Standard

Colonoscopy is not the only screening diagnostic to check for colon or colorectal cancer, but it is considered the gold standard for several reasons. Patients are often wary of colonoscopy because of the time and potential messiness involved to prep for it, but it truly is a life-saving diagnostic. During the procedure, if your physician finds polyps, he or she can remove them while the test is being performed. Other diagnostics may detect the presence of colorectal cancer, but they cannot remove polyps on sight. Other options include stool-based tests, CT colonography, or flexible sigmoidoscopy (FSIG). Your physician can best recommend which type of screening is best for you, but in most cases, colonoscopy is the safest and effective tool for early detection of colorectal cancer. If you need more information about colorectal or colon cancer or would like to book an appointment for a colonoscopy or would like to be seen by a physician, contact the Digestive Health Partners today.