March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

By Carolina Boyd, Communications Associate

In February 2000, President Bill Clinton officially dedicated March as National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in this country and the third leading cause of cancer deaths in American men and women combined.

“Colorectal cancer is usually caused when pre-cancerous polyps grow and become cancerous,” said Dr. Danielle Wininger, Family Medicine Physician at Legacy Community Health.  “Although genetics are a factor for some people, the majority of people who have colon cancer have no family history of the disease.”

Many times, people with colorectal cancer experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. This is one of the reasons it is so deadly. When symptoms do arise, they can include:

  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Rectal bleeding or bloody stools
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, like cramps or gas
  • Unexplained or sudden weight loss

There are many lifestyle risk factors that contribute to colorectal cancer. Those include: obesity, diabetes, diet and alcohol consumption.  Exercising and trying to maintain a healthy weight and a high fiber diet can protect against colorectal cancer.

The risk for colorectal cancer increases with age but since the 1990s the disease has doubled among patients younger than 50. Not only that, younger patients are dying more often from the disease. In 2020, the death of “Black Panther” Actor, Chadwick Boseman, at the age of 43 brought renewed attention to colorectal cancer and the need for regular screening.

“The most effective way to reduce your risk is routine screening, beginning at the age of 45. Colon cancer screening is so important because many times the screening tests pick up on polyps before they are cancerous,” said Wininger. “These polyps are usually easy to remove which helps in the prevention of colon cancer.”

There are several colorectal cancer screening tests available to patients. The most well-known being the colonoscopy. It is a visual exam in which doctors use a flexible tube to look at the entire length of the colon and rectum. The instrument has a light and small video camera at the end and can be used to biopsy or remove any suspicious looking areas, like polyps.

Another option that is easier to complete and often can be done at home is a stool-based test. A common one is the fecal immunochemical test (FIT), which looks for hidden blood in the stool. When a Legacy patient, between the ages of 45-75, comes in for their yearly check-up, they are given the FIT to take at home. The patient completes the test and either mails in the sample or brings it to the Legacy lab, depending on which clinic they are visiting.

“We can also refer patients to a gastroenterologist if they would prefer to get a colonoscopy,” said Wininger.

For more information about colorectal screening at Legacy Community Health, call 832-548-5000 to schedule an appointment with one of our providers.