Colorectal cancer: What you need to know

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Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States according to the American Cancer Society.

Since the mid-1980’s, the rate of people being diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year has dropped due to increased screening and awareness.

Knowledge can be your fist line of defense against colorectal cancer.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is a cancer that starts anywhere along the colon (large intestine) or rectum. Both of these organs are in the lower portion of the digestive system.

Most of these cancers begin as pre-cancerous abnormal growths (called “polyps”) inside the colon or rectum and over time, polyps can turn into colorectal cancer.

Patients with bleeding during bowel movements, changes in their bowel habits, abdominal pain or weight loss should speak with their doctor and consider having a colonoscopy.

What are the screening options for detecting colorectal cancer?

It is recommended that colorectal cancer screening for men and women should begin at age 45 and screening colonoscopy is usually repeated every ten years.

However, earlier testing may be appropriate for patients who have a family member with colorectal cancer or who have other risk factors like inflammatory bowel disease.

The standard screening test for colorectal cancer is colonoscopy, in which a flexible, lighted tube is used to examine the entire colon and rectum.

This test, which requires a laxative preparation and is performed under sedation, is about 95 percent accurate.

If a polyp is found during a colonoscopy it is removed using a colonoscope which prevents the polyp from turning into cancer in the future.

An alternative to colonoscopy is a CT colonography which is also called a virtual colonoscopy.

Other tests that can screen for colorectal cancer are stool-based exams, such as the fecal immunochemical test and stool DNA test.

These tests require obtaining a stool sample at home and mailing it to a lab for evaluation. These tests aren’t as accurate as a colonoscopy and must be performed once a year or every few years.

What are some treatment options for patients with colorectal cancer?

Surgery is the most effective treatment for colorectal cancer and operations for colorectal cancer are usually performed using minimally invasive techniques like laparoscopy and robotic surgery.

In addition to surgery, some patients may also undergo chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy as part of their treatment for colorectal cancer.