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National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month: Prevention, Early Detection, and Risk Factors

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. A time for thousands of colorectal cancer patients, survivors, caregivers, and health care workers to join together and help bring an end to this disease. Those who are most likely to be affected by colorectal cancer are usually above the age of 45, have a personal or family history of cancer or polyps, or chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Both men and women are equally likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Overall black males and black females have a higher incidence and higher mortality rate than white, Asian, or Pacific Islander males and females. Despite these indicators of risk, nearly 75% of colorectal cancers happen to people with no known risk factors. This is one reason why regular screening is so important and can help save thousands of lives.

New guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends colorectal cancer screening start at age 45 instead of age 50. These new guidelines come as a result of numerous studies showing a significant rise in colorectal cancer cases among those below the age of 50. Colorectal cancer screenings are the best way to detect cancer early and stop it from spreading. You can also help prevent colorectal cancer by living a healthy lifestyle and following a diet and exercise regimen that promotes good health. A diet linked to a decreased risk of colorectal cancer includes one with plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grain and one with less red and processed meat. Getting regular exercise and staying physically fit will also reduce your risk. Tobacco smoke and alcohol have both been linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer, so it’s best not to smoke or drink to excess.

For those eligible for screening, the colonoscopy is the gold standard for colorectal cancer detection. Many studies confirm the lifesaving effects of receiving a colonoscopy every 10 years. Screening by colonoscopy has been found to reduce the risk of death from colorectal cancer by 61%. For those unable to schedule a whole day off to prepare for and receive a colonoscopy, a different option is available called a fecal immunochemical test (FIT). A FIT can be performed at home without any prior preparation. Despite the FIT being less invasive than a regular colonoscopy, it must be done annually as opposed to a colonoscopy, which must be done every 10 years. If you choose to receive a FIT make sure to return the test to your primary care physician by mail or in person.

Early detection can extend life expectancy by more than 5 years for patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer. When cancer is detected in the localized stage, it is limited to the place where it started and hasn’t spread yet. The 5-year survival rate for finding cancer in the localized stage is 91%. When cancer is in the regional stage, it has spread to nearby lymph nodes, tissues, or organs. The 5-year survival rate for finding cancer in the regional stage is 72%. When cancer is at the distant stage, it has spread to different parts of the body away from the colon or rectum. The 5-year survival rate for detecting cancer at the distant stage is 14%. Clearly, as more time passes and the cancer is able to progress further throughout the body, the chances of mortality increase considerably; therefore, it is important to be screened at the appropriate time.

At UHRU, our goal is to increase colorectal cancer screening among medically underserved populations in Georgia. We partner with community health centers to implement colorectal cancer screening programs that have been proven to save lives. We help identify barriers to colorectal cancer screening and develop individualized action plans to help community health centers overcome these challenges. An old African proverb once said “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” At UHRU we understand the importance of forming community partnerships and coalitions, and by working together, we are able to screen more underserved Georgians for colorectal cancer and save lives.

Colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer death, but it does not have to be with numerous screening methods available. This is why we continue to emphasize the life-saving impact of prevention and early detection. For more information, visit the American Cancer Society website to find more facts and view figures on colorectal cancer.

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