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Understanding Colorectal Cancer

A patient talks to his physician about a colorectal cancer screening

By Dr. Frank L. Urbano, MBA, FACP

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer diagnosed in the United States.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2022 there will be 151,030 new cases of colorectal cancer in the U.S.

While that figure is alarming, there is good news: The death rate from colorectal cancer has been dropping for the last several decades.

One likely cause of this decline is that colorectal polyps are being found more frequently by routine screenings and removed before they can develop into cancer. In addition, colorectal cancer treatments have improved in recent years through advances in minimally invasive surgery, targeted therapies, and immunotherapy.

Causes and risk factors for colorectal cancer

Your risk of getting colorectal cancer increases as you get older, particularly after the age of 50. But colorectal cancer rates are growing among people younger than 50 for reasons that are unclear.

Other risk factors include:

  • Having a personal history of colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer
  • Having inflammatory bowel disease
  • Having Lynch syndrome, familial adenomatous polyposis, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, or MUTYH-associated polyposis
  • Being of African or Ashkenazi Jewish descent
  • Having type 2 diabetes

Some studies suggest that people may reduce their risk of developing colorectal cancer by:

  • Increasing their physical activity
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Reducing consumption of red and processed meats
  • Limiting their alcohol consumption
  • Avoiding tobacco

There are now certain screenings and genetic tests that can help assess your risk of getting colorectal cancer. But ultimately, the most effective way to reduce your risk is to get screened for it, beginning at age 45.

Screening guidelines

Colorectal cancer almost always develops from polyps in the colon or rectum. Screening tests can find these polyps, allowing them to be removed before they turn into cancer. There are several screening strategies for colorectal cancer including:

  • Stool tests
  • Traditional colonoscopy
  • CT (“virtual”) colonography
  • Capsule endoscopy
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy

Most people should begin screening for colorectal cancer at age 45, then continue getting screened at regular intervals, depending upon what is found on the initial test. However, if you are at an increased risk for colorectal cancer, you may need to be tested earlier than 45, and/or more frequently.

Colorectal cancer screenings offer you peace of mind

While it’s still very common, colorectal cancer has become much less dangerous thanks to public health efforts and cancer screenings. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of getting tested. But with an increased number of testing options, as well as improvements in how traditional colonoscopies are performed, it’s not the ordeal it used to be.

I encourage you to speak with your doctor to find out about your colorectal cancer risks and further educate yourself on the screenings and preventive tools that are available to you. By taking common-sense precautions you should be able to avoid the worst consequences of this illness, which is usually very treatable when it’s caught early enough.

AmeriHealth New Jersey members can use our Provider Finder tool to locate a health care provider who meets their criteria.

Dr. Frank L. Urbano, MBA, FACP is senior medical director for AmeriHealth New Jersey.