The Cancer That Kills 50,000 Americans Annually is Highly Preventable. What Are We Waiting For?


[avatar user=”dponieman” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=””]By: Diego Ponieman, M.D. M.P.H.[/avatar]In 1998, Today Show host Katie Couric tragically, and very publicly, lost her husband to colon cancer, shining a spotlight on this “silent killer.” In an effort to encourage screening and awareness, Couric famously underwent a colonoscopy live on the Today Show. If she can do it, America began to think, “maybe I can too.” Two years later, in 2000, then-president Bill Clinton proclaimed March Colorectal Awareness Month.

Every year about 140,000 Americans are diagnosed with cancers of the colon and rectum, killing more than 50,000 people annually. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. While rates for this highly preventable disease have been on the decline among the general population, a study released this year shows rates of colorectal cancer in young people are rising sharply.

Regular screening is imperative. In many cases, there are no symptoms of colorectal cancers until the cancer has progressed to a late stage – the deadly disease can go completely undetected. Typical symptoms such as vomiting, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation are typical of much less serious medical concerns.

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force encourages individuals to begin routine screening when they turn 50 – more than 90 percent of colorectal cancers occur after this age. Younger patients with a family history of colon and rectal cancers should consult with their Primary Care Physician. And while younger patients with no family history have a much lower risk, the recent spike of colorectal cancers in people in their 20s and 30s should not go ignored.

According to the National Cancer Institute, colorectal cancer incidence rates have steadily declined in the United States, by three percent every year since 2003. Much of that decline, the Institute reports, can be attributed to the uptake of screening and changes in risk factors. In addition, lifestyle changes like smoking cessation and healthier eating are associated with the lower rates. If a colonoscopy seems daunting, other non-invasive screening options may be suitable. Talk with your doctor about which is right for you.

Following the DASH nutrition plan may also have the benefit of lowering one’s risk of colorectal cancers: The New York Times reported that “diets that include more fruits, vegetables and fiber and less red and processed meat are linked to lower colorectal cancer risk.”

When colorectal cancer is caught early, precancerous polyps can easily be removed before the disease develops and treatment options are much more effective. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, if everyone aged 50 and older were screened regularly, 6 out of 10 deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented.

The evidence is clear. When colorectal cancers are caught and treated early, more people survive. Neighborhood physicians in ACP’s network are committed to increasing awareness, delivering colorectal cancer screenings, and encouraging beneficial nutrition plans to the patients in our communities who need it most.