Colorectal Cancer: Risk Factors and Symptoms
By Katharine Radziewicz RN, BA, OCN, Oncology Nurse Navigator
Colorectal cancers often can be prevented and screening plays a very important role in this prevention. Risk factors can determine the timing of colorectal screening, so it is crucial for you to know what they are and have a discussion with your physician. Although there can be no signs or symptoms of this cancer, people may exhibit some without giving it a second thought. This article will talk about the risk factors as well as symptoms in hopes of raising public awareness and educating people on how they can reduce their risk of colorectal cancer.
Risk factors that you CAN'T control are:
- Personal history of polyps or colorectal cancer, IBD- such as Colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Genetic conditions and family history. Family history has a significant impact on one's risk. In fact, people with a first-degree relative who has colon cancer are 2-3 times more likely to develop the disease.
- Ethnicity and race (African Americans and Jews of Eastern European descent) also can put you at a higher risk for colon cancer so it's important to discuss screening with your physician.
Here are some regular changes you CAN control to reduce your risk for colorectal cancer at any age:
- Healthy lifestyle such as daily exercise
- Deciding not to smoke or committing to quit
- Maintaining healthy body weight by proper nutrition
Although the signs can vary, common symptoms of colorectal cancer may include:
- No signs or symptoms at all
- An ongoing change of bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation, or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely)
- Stools that are narrower than usual
- Blood (either bright red or very dark) in the stool
- Rectal bleeding
- Frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness, or abdominal cramps
- Weight loss for no known reason
- Feeling very tired (weakness and fatigue)
Be in tune with your body and know what is normal for you and what is not. Although data shows new colorectal cancers in older adults (ages 50+) have fallen consistently over the years (due to the increase of screening), rates of colorectal cancer of people under age 50 have risen, particularly for rectal cancer. When a colorectal cancer is discovered early, it is highly treatable. Even if it spreads into nearby lymph nodes, surgical treatment followed by chemotherapy is highly effective. In the most difficult cases — when the cancer has spread to the liver, lungs or other sites — treatment can help make surgery an option for some, as well as prolonging and adding to one’s quality of life. Research is constantly being done nationwide and also at Stamford Health’s GI Center of Excellence to learn more and provide hope for people no matter what stage they are.
At Stamford Hospital, colon or rectal cancer patients are treated by a multidisciplinary team which often may include a medical and/or radiation oncologist, pathologist, colorectal surgeon, oncologic surgeon, gastroenterologist, genetics counselor and a dedicated nurse navigator. Clinical trials also can be an option. Each member of this team have expertise in treating colorectal cancers and cases are discussed bi monthly at our multidisciplinary tumor board conference.
Remember, screening saves lives and reduces risk factors ! At all times, contact a physician if you are experiencing any of the symptoms noted earlier. Plus, learn everything you were afraid to ask during our month-long event, Getting on the Right Track . Colorectal cancer is a preventable disease, so give your doctor a call, get a screening, and join in the fight to wipe it out!
- National Cancer Institute
- American Cancer Society