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March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

  • Published: 2009-03-13 (Revised/Updated 2015-08-10) : Author: Mayo Clinic : Contact: Mayo Clinic
  • Synopsis: Learn more about colorectal cancer and how it can be prevented or best treated.
Bowel Cancer

Colorectal cancer (also known as colon cancer, rectal cancer or bowel cancer) is the development of cancer in the colon or rectum (parts of the large intestine). It is due to the abnormal growth of cells that have the ability to invade or spread to other parts of the body. Colon cancer is cancer of the large intestine (colon), the lower part of your digestive system. Rectal cancer is cancer of the last several inches of the colon. Together, they're often referred to as colorectal cancers. Signs and symptoms may include blood in the stool, a change in bowel movements, weight loss, and feeling tired all the time.

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"If detected, colorectal cancer requires surgery in nearly all cases for complete cure, sometimes in conjunction with radiation and chemotherapy."

Colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon and rectum) is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States (after lung cancer). March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so it's a good time to learn more about colorectal cancer and how it can be prevented or best treated.

According to the American Cancer Society, almost 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer were diagnosed and approximately 50,000 people died from the disease last year. Despite these statistics, unlike some cancers, colorectal cancer is highly preventable and can be detected early through proper screening.

"Although a potentially serious disease if left undetected and untreated, colorectal cancer can often be prevented through regular screenings, a healthy diet and regular exercise," explained Ron Landmann, M.D., a colorectal surgeon at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. "The key is catching it early if the disease is present, hence the importance of regular screenings."

What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer often has no symptoms until the disease has progressed beyond its earliest stages. Some potential signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer to watch for and ask your physician about include:

Most colorectal cancers begin as a polyp, which is a tissue growth that starts in the lining of the colon or rectum. Identifying and removing a polyp early in its development may prevent it from becoming cancerous.

Who is at risk for colorectal cancer

The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age. Men and women aged 50 and older are at an increased risk for developing colorectal cancer, and should be screened at least every 5-10 years. 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.

Current screening methods include;

"Colonoscopy remains the gold standard for colorectal cancer screening and is a very safe and effective procedure when performed by a physician with specialized training in gastrointestinal disorders," said Michael Wallace, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. "Newer procedures including virtual biopsies and the use of high-definition scopes are making colonoscopy even more effective at detecting and treating early signs of colon cancer."

A large clinical study at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville found that new high-definition colonoscopes even further reduce the chance of missing small polyps in the colon. The Digestive Disease Center at Mayo Clinic has now implemented high-definition colonoscopy throughout its practice to take advantage of this important breakthrough.

Colorectal cancer screening costs are covered by Medicare and most commercial health insurance plans, usually starting at age 50 for the most common tests. You should find out from your 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 that you:

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 extremely preventable if polyps that lead to the cancer are detected and removed, and it is very curable if the cancer is detected in its early stages.

"If detected, colorectal cancer requires surgery in nearly all cases for complete cure, sometimes in conjunction with radiation and chemotherapy," said Dr. Landmann. "Between 80-90 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 that 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.

What kind of treatments and trials are available for colorectal cancer

Some cancers, if caught very early, can be treated with colonoscopy and without the need for surgery. Newer more advanced minimally invasive techniques, such as laparoscopic or endoscopic resections, allow more patients to undergo curative surgery without the need for lengthy hospital stays or a stoma ("bag"). With these techniques, pain is considerably less and patients are able to return to work and their daily activities in significantly less time than with standard operations.

At Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, colorectal surgeons and gastroenterologists specialize in the latest laparoscopic and endoscopic resection techniques for cancer as well as benign and inflammatory diseases such as diverticulitis, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn's disease.

New nationwide clinical studies are currently ongoing involving these techniques for cancer. The Colon & Rectal Surgery group at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville is one of the approved centers for these trials.

Awareness: Colon Cancer

Dark blue awareness ribbonA Dark Blue Ribbon brings awareness to Colon Cancer. The month of March is designated as U.S. National Colorectal Awareness Month.

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2 : Female Colorectal Cancer: Symptoms, Pregnancy Risks & Treatments : Thomas C. Weiss.
3 : Could the Humble Aspirin be the Cure for Colon Cancer : University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences.
4 : Breakthrough in Bowel Cancer Treatment : Queen's University Belfast.
5 : Colonoscopy Recommendations for 1 to 2 Polyps Consistent with Guidelines : American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.
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