In 1998, Katie Couric lost her husband, Jay Monahan, to colon cancer. After his passing, Couric made it her mission to help spread the word about the importance of early detection colorectal cancer screenings. Monahan was only 41 years old when his Stage 4 colon cancer was diagnosed, and he unfortunately passed away within a year of it being diagnosed. While Couric’s loss was a tragedy, it also provided a large swath of the public with greater awareness about colorectal cancer and prevention.
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which continues the tradition of spreading the word that Couric initiated in 1998. Turned into an official holiday by President Bill Clinton, Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is now in its 21st year. Awareness of the disease can lead to early detection, which is why it’s so important to educate yourself about the disease.
Understanding Colorectal Cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, “most colorectal cancers start as a growth on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. These growths are called polyps.” Not all polyps are cancerous, but some of them can eventually develop into cancer. If a polyp ends up being cancerous, it can easily spread and grow into the wall of the colon or rectum over time. This is why early detection and prevention is so vital in battling colorectal cancers.
Early Intervention Can Mean Prevention
Although colorectal cancer can sometimes be seen as a disease that impacts men more than women, the Colorectal Cancer Alliance advocates that everyone, regardless of gender, be regularly screened. It’s recommended that people without a family history of colorectal cancers should start getting screened at age 45. There are a variety of ways to get screened for colorectal cancers:
- Colonoscopy – This easy and safe procedure is the most common form of colorectal screening. The doctor uses a long tube that has a light and camera attached in order to look for polyps.
- Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) – This test detects blood in stool. It requires a bowel movement swab which the doctor examines.
- Guaiac Fecal Occult Blood Test – This is an alternative to the FIT screening and it uses the same methodology to screen for colorectal cancers.
- Flexible Sigmoidoscopy – This procedure is done in a doctor’s office and detects polyps without necessitating sedation. While it might seem easier than a colonoscopy, it is not as comprehensive a test.
- Virtual Colonoscopy – A less invasive alternative to a regular colonoscopy, a virtual colonoscopy uses X-rays and computer-generated images to look at your colon.
- Stool DNA – This test looks for abnormal DNA and blood in stool. A bowel movement has to be collected and sent to a lab for analysis to complete this test.
- Double-Contrast Barium Enema – Perhaps one of the least popular or lesser-known forms of early detection, this procedure involves having air and barium pumped into your rectum, which will show tumors or polyps on X-rays.
As you can see, there are a variety of ways to be screened for colorectal cancers. The most important thing is not which method you choose, but that you get screened regularly and as directed by your physician. According to a 2016 research study from the University of Pennsylvania, early detection of colorectal cancer can reduce the risk of death by 67%.
Reducing Your Cancer Risk
In addition to having regular colonoscopies, a great way to prevent colorectal cancer is by making certain lifestyle changes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified that adopting a diet low in animal fat and high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains can potentially reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. They also recommend increasing your physical activity levels, limiting your alcohol consumption, avoiding tobacco and taking low-dose aspirin every day.
Signs and Symptoms to Talk to Your Doctor About
Not all screenings have to be annual. If you notice a persistent change in your bowel movements, find blood in your stool, experience persistent discomfort in your abdomen or have unexplained weight loss, you should talk to your doctor immediately. The Mayo Clinic notes that early cancer typically goes undetected, so once signs and symptoms appear, they’ll vary in severity based on the size and progression of the tumor.