Would you jump in a pen and wrestle a half crazed alligator? Probably not! Well, March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer related deaths in the United States. The sad thing is that in 60% of the cases, colorectal cancer is preventable with routine screenings.
So, who is at risk for colorectal cancer? You are considered to be at average risk if you are 50 years old or older with no other risk factors. Men have an average lifetime risk of colorectal cancer of about one in seventeen; whereas, women’s risk is about one in nineteen. People at higher risk are those with a close family member such as a parent, sibling, or child who has had the disease, or those who have had colorectal cancer or precancerous polyps. Race also plays a significant role. Blacks are more likely than any other racial group to develop colorectal cancer and have lower survival rates. Most healthcare providers agree that if you’re black, screening should start at age 45 instead of 50.
It is thought that a high fat, low fiber diet can increase your likelihood of colorectal cancer. Obesity, diabetes, and heavy alcohol intake can also increase your risk. A sedentary lifestyle can also put you at higher risk, as well as the good health nemesis—smoking! It has also been shown that people of Ashkenazi ancestry (Jews of Eastern European descent) are more likely to develop colorectal cancer. In 2006 in Poland, it was found that men were more likely to have larger polyps at a younger age; the study’s authors recommended that screening begin at age 40 for men.
Signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer usually do not appear until the disease has progressed to the advanced stages, which also reduces your chance of a cure. When polyps and early stage cancers are found and removed before symptoms are noticed, you increase your five year survival rate by 90%. The following are symptoms: a change in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation; narrow, pencil-thin stools; rectal bleeding or blood in your stools; persistent abdominal pain, gas, cramps, or discomfort; the feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty completely; or unexplained weight loss. These symptoms could have many different meanings to your health, so you should seek the advice of your healthcare provider if you experience any of the above symptoms.
You might have a chance of taking that half crazed alligator by the tail and smacking him on the nose a time or two and escaping with a few minor scratches, but why take the risk? You could also never get tested for colorectal cancer and never contract the disease. However, I personally wouldn’t take my chances with either. Getting bitten in either case could mean a lot of pain and suffering that could have been prevented by using a little common sense. Be proactive, know your risks, don’t play the odds, and get tested—it may save your life.
Because of the importance of this topic and an overwhelming positive response, this column is being repeated.
Howard Baker, RN BSN
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