March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. The good news is that in the last decade, there has been unprecedented progress in reducing colorectal cancer incidence and death rates in the U.S. The incidence in both men and women has been decreasing annually by about three percent, and the mortality rates have been dropping as well. These improvements are the result of cancer prevention and early diagnosis through screening and better treatment modalities.
Despite this encouraging news, there is still much to do. Colorectal cancer remains a disease that leaves devastation and sadness to patients and families, often when they least expect it when people are in the prime of their lives. The incidence of colorectal cancer has actually been increasing in those under 50, it remains the fourth most frequently diagnosed cancer and is the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. overall.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that only 59 percent of people age 50 or older received colorectal cancer testing according to the results of a large scale survey conducted in 2010. Barriers such as insurance problems, misinformation about benefits, fear, embarrassment and inconvenience are cited as reasons why rates are not higher. The rates of screening in New Jersey is especially concerning. The state ranks 34th out of 51 (50 states plus the District of Columbia), in colorectal cancer screening prevalence.
Education and awareness can change all of this. By talking about colorectal cancer and bringing it to the forefront, we can reduce people’s feelings of embarrassment or discomfort with the topic. Ideally, colorectal cancer screening should begin at age 50, with colonoscopy being the standard test.
It is important to note that your risk of developing colorectal cancer is increased if you have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps, personal history of inflammatory bowel disease or specific inherited syndromes. Such patients need to begin screening at age 40 or younger.
Being aware of symptoms such as rectal bleeding and reporting it immediately to your physician, could lead to earlier diagnosis. Finally, limiting a diet high in red and processed meats, increasing exercise, limiting alcohol, addressing obesity and stopping smoking also will help decrease colorectal cancer.
The ACS has a goal of increasing screening rates to 80 percent by 2018. We can be proud of what we have accomplished in past years. But more importantly, we need to be aware of how we could continue to drive colorectal cancer incidence and mortality to record low levels with screening and education.
If you have a family history of colorectal cancer or are approaching age 50, be sure to ask your doctor about getting screened.
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