March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. This initiative began in 2000 and has become a rallying point for thousands of colorectal cancer patients, survivors, caregivers and advocates across the country.
Awareness around this illness is important due to the impact this cancer has as one of the most common malignancies in our country. The numbers are quite staggering. Colorectal cancer affects 1 in 23 men and 1 in 25 women during their lifetimes. It is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. and third-most diagnosed type of cancer in America. In 2022, the American Cancer Society estimates that doctors will diagnose 106,180 new cases of colon cancer and 44,950 new cases of rectal cancer, for a total of 151,130 colorectal cases this year.
The American Cancer Society and Colorectal Cancer Alliance point out that the demographics of colon and rectal cancer are changing. Colorectal cancer rates are increasing 2% annually for people under age 50 and 1% annually for those ages 50 to 64. This has led the United States Preventative Services Task Force to recommend those with average risk factors start screening for colorectal cancer at age 45.
Colorectal cancer can be traced to the formation of polyps, or small growths, inside the colon or rectum. Identifying and removing polyps is a key to stopping cancer from advancing and spreading.
Whereas other cancers can be more easily detected by a given individual, colorectal cancer can be difficult to be aware of and makes screening more important. A common symptom includes changes in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation, or a change in stool consistency. These symptoms of course can also be caused by common conditions such as food poisoning, food allergies, infections, and medications. Additionally, colorectal cancer can present with blood in the stool, abdominal pain, and weight loss. Individuals who notice any altered gastrointestinal symptoms should go see a doctor for further evaluation.
Medicare and private insurance typically cover the cost of preventative care, including colorectal cancer screening. There are various mechanisms to screen for this cancer including:
- Stool test: These lab exams can detect the presence of blood or altered DNA.
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy: A short, thin, flexible, lighted tube is inserted into the rectum.
- Colonoscopy: A longer tube is inserted inside the rectum and entire colon.
- Computed tomography colonography: X-ray imaging and computer reconstruction can produce images of the entire colon.
Physicians will recommend the most appropriate type of screening based on a patient’s symptoms, initial exam, and medical history.
Colorectal cancer has become an increasingly more treatable form of cancer. Increasing numbers of patients have become curable with improvements in cancer treatment and technology.
The most appropriate combination of treatment is based on a patient’s stage and the specific location of a cancerous lesion. Typically, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are combined for the majority of rectal cancers. Surgery and chemotherapy are more commonly used for colon cancer treatment.
Radiation therapy precisely targets powerful x-rays into a tumor and the draining lymph nodes. This treatment damages the genetic material inside cancer cells and prevents from growing and spreading. Critically, radiation technology has increasingly allowed physicians to spare normal structures leading to improved short-term symptoms and long-term quality of life.
Side effects of radiation vary based on an individual patient and the specific details around their cancer. The most common side effects of radiation therapy when treating rectal cancer include mild fatigue, altered bowel habits, and increased urinary frequency.
We are proud to provide expert care at Advocate Radiation Oncology. Our board-certified radiation oncologists have trained at our country’s most notable institutions and are exceptionally dedicated to patient care. We offer convenient locations across Southwest Florida and treat patients using the industry’s newest high-tech cancer-fighting machines, including Varian’s Halcyon, Identify and TrueBeam systems. These machines are accurate and powerful. They allow our treatment to eradicate cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy surrounding tissue.
Colorectal cancer begins with awareness and education so that screening can lead to the earliest diagnosis possible. We should all work together to continue to make impactful strides around this common illness. We are proud to stand alongside our colorectal cancer patients and their loved ones.