By Nickey Jafari
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the world, resulting in 8.8 million deaths in 2015 alone1. Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer globally2 and the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States3. While your risk of colon cancer generally increases with age, a recent study from the American Cancer Society shows rates of colon and rectal cancer are increasing in younger populations, with those born in 1990 having double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer as those born in 1950. Other important risk factors are having inflammatory bowel disease, a family history of colorectal cancer, and certain genetic syndromes e.g. Lynch syndrome4. Lifestyle risk factors that are important to note since they are amenable to modification include lack of regular physical activity, low-fiber diets, lack of adequate fruit and vegetable consumption, and tobacco and alcohol use4. Common signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer include a change in your bowel habits, blood in the stool, weakness, weight loss, and abdominal pain6. Linked here is a handy Colorectal Cancer Risk Assessment Tool by the National Cancer Institute.
The earlier you detect colorectal cancer, the better the outcome. A National Cancer Institute database of patients diagnosed between 2004 and 2010 found a 5-year relative survival rate of 92% for a stage I tumor, while stage IV tumors had a 5-year relative survival rate of 11%5. Keep in mind these are only estimates and cannot predict individual outcomes, and our surgical and chemotherapy options continue to take great strides. You can find a very helpful and informative explanation of tumor staging here. Given how critical it is to diagnose colorectal cancer early, we are fortunate, unlike other cancers such as pancreatic cancer, to have effective screening tools available. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force gives a Grade A, the highest level, of recommendation for screening on adults beginning at age 50 with fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy. Each of these three methods has its different risks and benefits. The American College of Gastroenterology divides them into cancer prevention and cancer detection tests, with colonoscopy every 10 years starting at age 50 (age 45 for African Americans) being the best colorectal cancer prevention test. Afterall, colonoscopy has the benefit of identifying growths called polyps before they even become cancerous, and often we can remove them during the procedure. Of course, these guidelines are for average-risk individuals, and everyone should discuss their risk factors and screening options one-on-one with their primary care providers. In the meantime, spread awareness to your loved ones and try and tackle as many of those lifestyle risk factors as you can!
Nickey Jafari is currently a third year medical student at the University of Kansas. She will be taking a year before beginning her fourth year of medical school to pursue a Master of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is hoping to pursue an academic general surgery residency afterwards with current interest in surgical oncology. When she has free time, Nickey enjoys traveling and has been to over fifteen countries. She also loves spending time with her mother and father when she’s not too busy spoiling her little sister.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.