Warning signs of colorectal cancer and why screenings are essential

February 27, 2023 | by Ralph Hermes, M.D.

Colorectal cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.

The American Cancer Society reports the rate of colorectal cancer diagnosis has dropped in people older than 50 by about 1 percent each year since the mid-1980s, a phenomenon attributed to an increase in screenings and lifestyle changes.

Unfortunately, diagnoses have been increasing at about the same rate among people younger than 50 since the mid-1990s. The lifetime risk of colorectal cancer is about 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 26 for women.

As we get older, the risk of colorectal cancer increases. Other factors that can increase our risk include having Inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis as well as a family or personal history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps.

Life choices that have been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer include:

  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Not eating enough fruits and vegetables
  • Eating too much low-fiber/high-fat food or a diet high in processed meats
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Tobacco use

It’s important to recognize the symptoms of colorectal cancer and seek medical treatment if they are present. By the time symptoms appear, colorectal cancer is often in a more advanced stage, so quick diagnosis and treatment is important.

Watch for these warning signs:

  • A change in bowel habits (e.g., diarrhea, constipation, narrowing of the stool) that lasts for more than a few days
  • Feeling like you need to have a bowel movement that doesn’t go away after having one
  • Rectal bleeding with bright red blood
  • Blood in stool (may look dark brown or black)
  • Cramping, abdominal pain
  • Weakness, fatigue
  • Weight loss without trying

But there is good news: Colorectal cancer can be prevented or more easily treated as a result of routine screenings. In fact, screenings are the most effective way to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.

Everyone should begin routine screenings at age 45 (see current guidelines). The screening options include colonoscopy, a DNA stool test and fecal occult blood test. Doctors recommend a colonoscopy once every 10 years (those at higher risk may need more frequent colonoscopies), while the less invasive screening tests need to be done yearly.

Besides routine screenings, other ways you can reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer include:

  • Eat healthier food, including vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Eating less red meat and processed meats can also reduce your risk.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Eating healthier and increasing your physical activity can help you control your weight.
  • Don’t smoke. People who have been smoking for a long time are more likely than people who don't smoke to develop and die from colon or rectal cancer.
  • Avoid alcohol, which has been linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

Are you 45 or older and haven’t had a colonoscopy yet? The screening is safe, minimally invasive and it could help save your life. Not sure where to start? Here’s a step-by-step guide.

Dr. Ralph Hermes is a family medicine physician with Endeavor Health Medical Group. View Dr. Hermes’ profile and schedule an appointment online.

Learn your risk for colon cancer with ColonCancerAware, our free online assessment.

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Related blogs:

What it’s like to get a colonoscopy — before, during and after

How to interpret your colonoscopy results

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