Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month: Early Detection is Key

Northwestern Medicine
Cancer Care/Oncology March 15, 2012
According to the CDC, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Every year, more than 140,000  Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and more than 50,000 people die from it.  People who have a family history of colorectal  cancer are more likely to get the disease than the general population. These patients are also more likely to be stricken with the disease at a younger age. While the heightened risk is worrisome, experts say there are steps people can take to lower their risk through personalized risk assessment and targeted screening in order to prevent colorectal cancer.

"Colorectal cancer is usually found in people age 50 or older, but  younger people may also be affected," said Barbara Jung, MD, gastroenterologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, assistant professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center.  “Early detection is  imperative to the successful treatment of colon cancer, which is largely curable if caught early.”

The GI Cancer Prevention Clinic at Northwestern Memorial aims  to lower the rate of GI cancers and improve outcomes through close  monitoring for patients who are genetically predisposed to the  disease. Jung notes that everyone should examine their family history  and talk to their doctor to determine if they are at a heightened  risk. “Being ‘high risk’ does not necessarily mean you will get the disease, but it is reason enough to take charge of your health and be  proactive about screening,” said Jung, who is also the Director of the GI Cancer Prevention Clinic.

According to Jung, if colorectal cancer or other GI cancers occur in your family, talk with your doctor about strategies to lower your risk. “As a general consensus, people with strong family history should start their first screening colonoscopy 10 years before the age of the youngest immediate relative was diagnosed with the disease. Meaning, if your mother was diagnosed at age 50, you should be screened by age 40,” explained Jung.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer can include a change in your bowel  habits, rectal bleeding, persistent abdominal discomfort, weakness and unexplained weight loss. However, many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Colon cancer frequently begins with the formation of polyps on the colon wall , which eventually  may develop into cancer.  The process can take years, but regular screening allows doctors to identify polyps and suspicious lesions early, allowing them to safely remove the tissue before it becomes problematic in most cases.  The American Cancer Society recommends people to get tested for colorectal cancer with a colonoscopy beginning at the age of 50, sooner if there is a family history of the disease.

 If you are age 50 or older or have a family history of colon cancer, talk with your doctor and schedule an appointment to be screened. Click here to learn more about Northwestern’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Prevention Clinic.  To find a physician, call 312-926-0780 or visit our online physician finder.