Northwestern Medicine

Do You Know Fact from Fiction When it Comes to Colorectal Cancer?

Northwestern Memorial Hospital March 06, 2015

Northwestern Medicine experts dispel myths about colorectal cancer and prevention

CHICAGO, IL – The second leading cause of cancer deaths for both women and men in America is colorectal cancer according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, healthcare experts agree that this is largely due to a lack of public awareness about prevention. When colorectal cancer is screened for regularly, it can be detected at an early or even precancerous stage, making it treatable and even preventable. While the disease mainly impacts people older than age 50, younger individuals can be diagnosed with colorectal cancer as well. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which aims to address the need for greater awareness and education about the deadly disease.

“Everyone should understand the facts about prevention and the importance of regular colonoscopies, for both men and women,” said Scott A. Strong, MD, chief of Gastrointestinal and Oncologic Surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and surgical director of the Northwestern Digestive Health Center. “While surgical intervention and other treatment approaches continue to improve, appropriate screening can help prevent colorectal cancer from ever developing in some patients.”

Perhaps the greatest barriers to early detection often encountered by healthcare providers and patients are some of the common, long-held myths about this disease.

“I regularly hear that patients think screening wasn’t needed unless they already had symptoms consistent with colorectal cancer, but this is simply not the case,” said Mary F. Mulcahy, MD, a Northwestern Medicine oncologist and member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. “Colorectal cancer can be present for a long time before any symptoms are detected. Screening is for people with no symptoms of disease to detect precancerous disease. Symptoms such as blood in the stool, weight loss or any changes in the stool, are often signs of more advanced disease.”

Another myth that hinders preventative care is that many believe colorectal cancer is mainly a man’s disease, but according to John R. Andrews, MD, a colorectal surgeon at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital, women are at equal risk as men for developing colorectal cancer.

“Colorectal cancer doesn’t discriminate among the sexes, and the CDC’s data clearly shows that nearly just as many women develop colorectal cancer as men,” added Andrews. “We need to correct the public perception that this is a man’s disease and encourage women to get screened regularly. The more women are proactively screened, the more lives will be saved.”

Many also believe colorectal cancer is something that is either going to happen or not; that unlike other cancers such as lung cancer, lifestyle has no real impact on its development. However, research has shown that a number of dietary and lifestyle choices may help prevent this dangerous cancer including:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Reducing alcohol consumption
  • Increasing dietary fiber
  • Tobacco cessation
  • Reducing red meat
  • Increasing calcium and vitamin D intake
  • Eating more foods with polyphenols (often found in fruits, vegetables and nuts)
While taking steps to prevent colorectal cancer through lifestyle and dietary changes can make a big difference, the most effective method of prevention for both men and women is to receive appropriate colonoscopy screening. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends regular screening for colorectal cancer beginning at age 50, however, screening may be recommended to begin earlier for patients with a family history of colorectal cancer or other risk factors.

Those interested in learning more about colorectal cancer can attend “Conversations About Colorectal Cancer,” a free educational event featuring Northwestern Medicine oncology experts hosted by the Lurie Cancer Center. The event will take place on Saturday, March 7, from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Building’s Hughes Auditorium located at 303 E. Superior St., Chicago, IL 60611. 

Learn more about colorectal cancer care and prevention at Northwestern Medicine or to schedule an appointment, call 312.695.5620.

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