Colorectal cancer: Who is at risk, and how can it be prevented?

By Pranat Kumar, MD  |  3/20/2018

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and it is important to learn more about the disease and how it can be prevented or best treated.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States for both men and women combined. This year, approximately 140,000 new cases will be diagnosed and 56,000 people will die from the disease.

However, colorectal cancer is a disease that can be prevented through regular screenings, a healthy diet and regular exercise.

Who is at risk for colorectal cancer?

The risk of developing it increases with age. All men and women aged 50 and older are at risk for developing colorectal cancer and should be screened. Some people are at a higher risk and should be screened at an age younger than 50, including those with a personal or family history of inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer or polyps, or ovarian, endometrial or breast cancer.

Screening methods include fecal occult blood testing (a simple chemical test that can detect hidden blood in the stool), flexible sigmoidoscopy (a visual examination of the rectum and lower portion of the colon, performed in a doctor's office), double contrast barium enema (barium X-ray), colonoscopy (a visual examination of the entire colon) and digital rectal exam.

Colorectal cancer screening costs are covered by Medicare and many commercial health plans. You should find out from your colorectal surgeon or other healthcare provider which screening procedure is right for you and how often you should be screened.

How can I lower my risk?

To lower your risk of colorectal cancer, the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons recommends you:

  • Get regular screenings after age 50. Between 80- and 90 percent of colorectal cancer patients are restored to normal health if their cancer is detected and treated in the earliest stages.
  • Eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet.
  • If you use alcohol, drink only in moderation. If you use tobacco, quit. If you don't use tobacco, don't start. Alcohol and tobacco in combination are linked to colorectal cancer and other gastrointestinal cancers.
  • Exercise for at least 20 minutes three to four days each week. Moderate exercise such as walking, gardening or climbing steps may help.

Can colorectal cancer be cured?

Since there are very few symptoms associated with colorectal cancer, regular screening is essential. Screening is beneficial for two main reasons:

  • Colorectal cancer is preventable if polyps, abnormal growths of tissue that protrude from the mucous membrane, that lead to cancer are detected and removed.
  • Colorectal cancer is curable if the cancer is detected in its early stages.

It is important to know that if detected, colorectal cancer requires surgery in nearly all cases for complete cure, sometimes in conjunction with radiation and chemotherapy.

Between 80- and 90 percent of patients are restored to normal health if the cancer is detected and treated in the earliest stages. However, the cure rate drops to 50 percent or less when diagnosed in the later stages.

In addition, studies have shown patients treated by colorectal surgeons — experts in the surgical and nonsurgical treatment of colon and rectal problems — are more likely to survive colorectal cancer and experience fewer complications. This is attributed to colorectal surgeons' advanced training and the high volume of colon and rectal disease surgeries they perform.

Dr. Pranat Kumar is a board-certified general and colorectal surgeon with Health Quest Medical Practice's Division of General Surgery. He has office hours in Poughkeepsie, 21 Reade Place, Suite 3100, and can be reached 845-214-1800 (TTY:  800-421-1220).