Colorectal Cancer: What It Is, How You Can Reduce Your Risk, and Why You Should Get Screened Earlier

Young cancer patient resting in bed

Young cancer patient resting in bed | Ridofranz/ iStock

The down low on colorectal cancer

It’s also known as colon cancer, rectal cancer, and bowel cancer. The cancers that start in the colon or rectum are often grouped together because of their similar qualities. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that around 1 in 21 men and 1 in 23 women will develop colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women and third in men, yet many people remain uneducated when it comes to preventing and identifying risk factors for the disease. Luckily, the ACS found that advances in screening techniques and treatment improvements have lowered the death rate from colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer can be benign, or non-cancerous, or malignant. Benign and non-cancerous tumors are usually of little concern, while malignant cancer can spread to other parts of your body.

Signs, symptoms, and your risk

Signs and symptoms differ based on the tumor location as well as whether or not the tumor has metastasized, or spread elsewhere in the body. Typical signs of colorectal cancer include bloody stool, loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, or vomiting in people 50 years or older.

There are certain risk factors for colorectal cancer that you can’t control — namely age, a family history of cancer, or inherited genetic changes that put you at higher risk. However, there are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to help lower your risk of colorectal cancer and live a healthier life.

Your risk of developing and dying from colorectal cancer raises if you’re overweight, obese, lead a sedentary lifestyle, and eat a diet high in red or processed meats. These factors can lead to a number of other chronic conditions as well such as diabetes.

Long-time smokers and heavy drinkers are also at a higher risk of colorectal cancer. Smoking, a well-known cause of lung cancer, is linked to plenty of other cancers including mouth, throat, colorectal, pancreatic, and kidney cancers.

How to reduce your risk


Soda | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A new study published in the medical journal PLOS ONE found a correlation between artificially sweetened soft drinks and lower colon cancer risk.

“The finding clearly shows,” co-senior study author Professor Charles S. Fuchs said, that artificially sweetened drinks like diet sodas and teas “help avoid cancer recurrence and death in patients who have been treated for advanced colon cancer.”

This study will likely be contested and questioned by medical professionals. Fuchs acknowledged the popular perception that artificially sweetened soft drinks “have a checkered reputation” and are considered likely to carry “health risks.” The authors claimed a “growing body of literature” links recurrence and death in colon cancer to “states of excess energy balance,” which typically involves external factors like diabetes and consumption of sugary drinks rather than their artificially-sweetened counterparts.

In other news, the American Cancer Society issued new guidelines in May 2018 that could help patients identify their colorectal cancer risk earlier. The ACS formerly recommended everyone age 50 and above begin to screen for colorectal cancer. The new guidelines recommend you begin screening at age 45 if you show average risk for the disease, and earlier if you have a personal or family history of inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer, or breast cancer.


“Most people don’t realize that colon cancer is a totally preventable cancer,” Dr. Helen Daniel, a physician with Regional Clinics Internal Medicine, told the Longview News-Journal. “It develops from a benign polyp that over the course of a number of years becomes the carcinoma, which is the cancer … In essence, you can prevent colon cancer if people get the colonoscopy on time and follow through with continued screening.”

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