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Colorectal cancer: a common but preventable killer

Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both women and men in the United States. Colorectal cancer is also the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Annually, over 130,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and approximately 50,000 will die from the disease.

The good news is that many of these deaths can be prevented with early detection and treatment. Approximately 90 percent of those diagnosed with colon cancer or rectal cancer are over the age of 50, but the incident rates in younger people have seen an increase. Sadly, only about 50 percent of people over age 50 get the recommended colorectal screening tests (colonoscopy) consistent with medical guidelines.

Screening prevents colorectal cancer by detecting the precursor lesions, known as polyps, in the rectum and colon. These are non-cancerous growths. Only a small percentage of polyps will turn cancerous, but the screening identifies them, and the polyps are all removed.

Regular screening identifies polyps early, greatly increasing the chance that they are removed and do not progress into cancer. Early and frequent screening can also identify colorectal cancer in the early stages, significantly increasing the odds that it can be effectively treated and cured.

For these reasons, physicians will recommend screening tests for patients over the age of 50, or who are at high risk (often with a strong family history of the disease). Screening for colorectal cancer according to your doctor’s guidelines is good.

In addition to colorectal cancer screening, the following measures can decrease the risk of developing colorectal cancer:

Exercise regularly.
Maintain a healthy weight.
Don’t smoke.
Drink alcohol in moderation.
Eat a healthy diet.

Here are seven warning signs for colorectal cancer:

Frequent bleeding when you evacuate

Bleeding may occur in the lower areas of the digestive system, or in some instances, in the rectum. When bleeding occurs above the rectum, the color of stool changes to a dark, tar-like consistency. Some liken it to “coffee grounds.” In the case of rectal bleeding, blood is visible almost as a bright red separate discharge in the stool.

Change in bowel habits

Most people with colon cancer notice a change in the pattern of bowel movements. They may have unexplained and recurrent episodes of either constipation or diarrhea. Everyone experiences bouts of constipation or diarrhea, but if these symptoms continue over an extended period of time, be sure to talk to your doctor about a plan.

Persistent bloating and abdominal discomfort

Patients with colorectal cancer often experience significant abdominal discomfort and bloating on a regular basis, almost on a daily basis. The bloating can occur without eating and may be accompanied by cramps and burping. Sometimes patients will experience episodes of nausea and vomiting, too.

Excessive or constant gas

This comes as a dramatic and noticeable change to normal “passing gas” habits.

Thin ribbon-like stoolsor small diameter pencil-like stools

The stool quality commonly changes with colorectal cancer. The stool becomes, dark, long and flat like a ribbon or thin like a pencil.

Low energy

This can result from a slow loss of blood that results in anemia. Feeling fatigued can also be affected by energy sapped by the immune system in fighting the cancer. Also, anemia can produce shortness of breath as the body is not able to efficiently get oxygen to the cells and tissues and organs

Weight loss without explanation

Weight loss associated with colorectal cancer can be the result of several causes. These include loss of appetite and an increase in calories needed by the immune system to fight the disease.

The bad news is that colorectal cancer is a leading cause of death in America. The good news is that the majority of colorectal cancer deaths are preventable. Talk to your doctor about developing a timeline for screening for colorectal cancer in your case (colonoscopy), and in the case of your loved ones.

If you have any of the symptoms listed above, do not panic but definitely get yourself checked out by your physician. The sooner you do, the better.

Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He received his M.D. and Master’s Degree in Molecular Biology and Genomics from the Mayo Clinic. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine. Dr. Crutchfield was recognized by Minnesota Medicine as one of the 100 Most Influential Healthcare Leaders in Minnesota. He is the team dermatologist for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild and Lynx. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of both the American and National Medical Associations.

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