- Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month was founded in 2000 to dispel myths and get rid of the stigma around bowel cancer.
- While the overall incidence is declining, younger people are seeing more cases of colorectal cancer.
- At-home screening kits can help people at risk monitor their health efficiently and easily.
Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is not just about being familiar with a common form of cancer. It’s about openly discussing a type of cancer that people can feel uncomfortable or afraid to discuss. Here’s what you should know about colon cancer and why it’s important to talk about it not just in March but every month.
What Is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month?
Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month occurs every March and was dedicated by Bill Clinton in February 2000 to raise awareness of cancers in the rectum or colon. It had two purposes: to destigmatize talking about these cancers and to serve as a way to rally survivors, allies, and people living with colorectal cancer.
People can struggle to talk to their doctor about their body when it comes to the colon and rectum; they’re taught it’s “dirty” or impolite to discuss. So, the goal is to raise awareness of colon cancer and its signs, as well as to encourage people to ask for help.
Colon cancer awareness has become especially important as the demographics of colorectal cancer are changing. While the incidence of this cancer in people over 64 has been dropping by roughly 1% a year since 2013, the incidence in people younger than 55 has been rising since the mid-1990s.
Researchers aren’t sure why this is, but it’s worth noting that cancer screening tools have substantially improved since the mid-90s, so cases that might have been missed or misdiagnosed are being caught and treated sooner.
What Are the Facts Around Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer, with approximately one in 23 men (4.3%) and one in 25 women (4%) at risk of getting it in their lifetimes. It’s also the third leading cause of death by cancer for both men and women and the second leading cause of cancer deaths combined by gender.
Roughly 50,000 Americans die from colorectal cancer or complications from it each year. The overall death rate has been declining due to better colorectal cancer screening, but among younger people, it’s been rising. There are 1.5 million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United States.
With about twice the number of cases, colon cancer is more common than rectal cancer.
What Are the Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer?
Beyond age, there are other factors to be aware of. Some are biological and others are related to lifestyle.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other inflammatory bowel diseases can raise your risk of colorectal cancer. This is likely because inflammation increases the turnover of cells in the colon.
Similar to other cancers, a close family member with a history of colorectal cancer increases the chances of getting it. However, the majority of colorectal cancer cases happen in people who do not have a family history.
Some Genetic Syndromes
Smoking and Other Tobacco Use
You’ve probably heard from your doctor that if you use tobacco, it’s time to quit. Tobacco use substantially increases your risk of all forms of cancer and a host of other diseases, so quitting is one of the best things you can do for your health.
Heavy alcohol consumption is also strongly associated with higher cancer risk. While the occasional glass of wine with dinner is unlikely to meaningfully raise your odds, patterns such as binge drinking may be a risk.
Being overweight or obese increases your risk for at least 13 kinds of cancer, including colorectal cancer. Precisely why is still unknown, and it’s not clear if obesity itself is the cause or if it’s a symptom of other risk factors, such as diabetes.
Separate from weight, a lifestyle with little exercise seems to increase your chances of getting some types of cancers as well as chronic diseases that can aggravate cancer. Again, it’s an open question whether the activity itself or the benefits of that activity have the impact, but it’s clear that regardless of your body type, regular light exercise can tip the odds in your favor.
A diet that’s low in fiber, fruits, and vegetables and high in fat, especially processed meats, can raise your risk of colorectal cancer. Adding fiber and plant-based foods to your diet can help reduce your risk and have other benefits, like making bowel movements easier.
What Should I Do To Reduce My Chances of Colorectal Cancer?
While researchers still aren’t entirely sure why some people get cancer and others don’t, there are things you can do to decrease your risk.
Make the ‘Big Four’ Lifestyle Changes
As a rule, for any condition, doctors will tell you to do four things:
- Stop tobacco use.
- Exercise more.
- Eat more plant-based and high-fiber foods.
- Drink less alcohol.
All of these choices will offer long-term benefits regardless of your age and condition and will reduce your risk of getting cancer. In fact, quitting smoking shows benefits almost immediately.
Become Familiar With the Early Signs of Colorectal Cancer
Keep an eye out for the following:
- A change in your bowel movements that seems permanent, such as diarrhea or constipation.
- Bleeding from your rectum or seeing blood in your stool.
- Abdominal pains that won’t go away, including cramps or gas.
- The feeling that you haven’t fully emptied, no matter how much you go.
- Weakness or fatigue.
These aren’t necessarily signs of colorectal cancer. In fact, the diagnostic criteria for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) include the same risk factors, but if you have any of these symptoms, it’s time to act.
If You’re at Risk, Get Screened Regularly
One of the major changes in colorectal cancer and how we treat it is higher-quality colorectal cancer screening that’s easy to use. At-home cancer screening is quick, convenient, and accurate, allowing people to screen on a regular basis and act at the first sign of problems.
Colorectal Cancer Can Be Stopped
Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is just the beginning. To some degree, everyone is at risk of getting colorectal cancer, but screening for it has never been easier. To learn more about colorectal cancer screening, visit our at-home screening kit page.
Dan is a long-time freelance writer focusing on technology, science, health, and medicine, with a lifelong interest in physics, biology, and medicine. His work has taken a particular focus on scientific studies “beyond the headlines,” reading the study to more closely examine the results.