Key Takeaways

  • Colorectal cancer survival rates are very high when the cancer is detected early and it can be more easily and successfully treated.

  • In addition to regular screening intervals there are several ways to reduce one’s risk factors for colorectal cancer.

  • Colonoscopies aren’t the only option for colorectal cancer screening. Asymptomatic, average-risk Americans may consider an at-home colorectal cancer screening test.

Colorectal cancer takes the lives of more than 50,000 Americans each year and approximately 151,000 Americans face a new diagnosis of colorectal cancer each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Additionally, Black people and people over 50 are affected at a disproportionate rate. These are staggering numbers, but together we can change them and help save lives through prevention, screening, and early detection.

According to a May 2020 study by JAMA Oncology, screenings after age 75 was linked with a 39% reduction in the incidence of colorectal cancer and a 40% decrease in the risk of death from the disease. 

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is cancer of the colon or rectum (also known as bowel cancer). According to the Mayo Clinic, it is the fourth leading cause of cancer and the second leading cause of mortality from cancer in the U.S.

Colorectal cancer survival rates are very high when the cancer is detected early and successful treatment is more likely. Almost all colorectal cancers begin as precancerous polyps (grape-like growths on the wall of the large intestine) in the colon or rectum. Such polyps can be present in the colon for years before invasive cancer develops. With colorectal cancer screening, you can find precancerous polyps so they can be removed before they become cancerous.

All Americans ages 45 and over should be speaking to their health care provider about scheduling colorectal cancer screening tests covered by private insurance and Medicare.

How else can I reduce my risk for colorectal cancer?

In addition to getting screened according to guidelines, there are several ways to reduce your risk factors for colorectal cancer:

  1. Limit alcohol consumption. If you do drink alcohol, have no more than one drink a day if you are a woman or no more than two drinks a day if you are a man. Drinking alcohol is linked to colorectal and several other cancers. The more you drink, the greater your risk of cancer. Even drinking small amounts might increase your risk.
  2. Don't smoke. If you do, it’s never too late to quit. 
  3. Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active. Getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity at least five days a week can make a big difference in your general health and well-being.
  4. Eat a healthy diet. Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. Limit red meat and cut out processed meats.
  5. Know your family medical history and get regular cancer screenings according to guidelines.

If you have any symptoms of colorectal cancer, such as blood in your stool, stomach pain, bloating, cramps that do not go away or changes in your bowel habits, you should discuss these with a health care provider right away. They may be caused by something other than cancer. The only way to know what is causing your symptoms is to see your doctor.

Colonoscopy versus at home screening for colorectal cancer

While colonoscopies have been a standard recommendation for colorectal cancer screening, they aren’t your only option. Asymptomatic, average-risk Americans may consider an at-home colorectal cancer screening test.  There are two types of at-home colorectal cancer screening tests: Fecal immunochemical tests (FIT) check for hidden blood in stool, and stool DNA tests check for blood as well as DNA changes in cells. The presence of blood or DNA changes could indicate cancer or precancerous conditions.

With a colonoscopy, polyps can be found and removed during the same procedure. If an at-home colorectal cancer screening test comes back positive, a follow-up colonoscopy would be necessary. If your test comes back negative, however, you would be up to date until your next scheduled test (barring changes to your health or family medical history).

At-home tests allow more flexibility for those who are deterred by colonoscopy prep or who face barriers to colonoscopy appointments, such as work, family obligations or unreliable transportation.

At-home screening can be a great option when you’re working to get your routine screenings back on the books. For those without insurance they are more affordable.

While colorectal cancer may seem like a grim topic or something we would rather not talk about, National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is meant to inspire an action and deliver a simple and powerful message—screening saves lives. If you have not scheduled your routine cancer screenings, there is no better time than now to get your appointments scheduled and back on the books.