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Regular screening can help prevent colorectal cancer

Karen Miller | 3/18/2014, 6 a.m.
Golden Globe and Academy Award-nominated actor and musician Terrence Howard lost his mother to colon cancer. Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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Your Wake-Up Call

In this 60 second public service announcement, Golden Globe and Academy Award-nominated actor and musician Terrence Howard urges Americans to be screened for colorectal cancer. Mr. Howard has a personal connection to the disease. He talks movingly about losing his mother to colon cancer, saying, "Let my heartbreak be your wake-up-call."

In this 60 second public service announcement, Golden Globe and Academy Award-nominated actor and musician Terrence Howard urges Americans to be screened for colorectal cancer. Mr. Howard has a personal connection to the disease. He talks movingly about losing his mother to colon cancer, saying, "Let my heartbreak be your wake-up-call."

March is the harbinger of spring. It also marks the observance of National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Cancer of the colon and rectum, collectively termed colorectal cancer, is the third most common cancer in this country in both men and women, and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), almost 137,000 new cases of colorectal cancer and 50,000 deaths are estimated for 2014. Actually, that is good news. The ACS notes that the incidence and death rates from colorectal cancer have been decreasing for the past 20 years, largely due to an uptick in screening.

The exact cause of colorectal cancer is not known. But what is known are the many conditions that increase one’s risk for the disease. Age, family or personal history of colorectal cancer, certain genetic conditions, and a history of colon polyps are factors. Those with inflammatory intestinal disorders, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, are also prone.

Polyps, or growths on the inner wall of the large intestine, are common in people over the age of 50. Many of these growths are actually pre-malignant lesions that have a long latency period. If left alone, they can eventually turn into cancer.

Polyps are found and removed during a screening test — more commonly a colonoscopy — in which a lighted tube is inserted into the entire length of the colon and rectum. Since it is not known which polyps will become cancerous, all are removed when detected.

The signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer are varied, but the two strong telltale signs are blood in the stool and a change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation. Other symptoms may include abdominal pain, fatigue or weight loss with no known reason.

Sometimes there are no symptoms at all. Colorectal cancer is generally silent in the early stages and causes symptoms when it advances. That is why screening is key. If polyps are found and removed during screening, colorectal cancer, unlike most other cancers, can often be prevented. It can also be treated more successfully when found early.

According to the National Cancer Institute, when colorectal cancer is found in the early stages, the five-year survival rate is 90 percent. When it has spread to distant parts of the body, the rate drops to 13 percent.

Massachusetts boasts one of the highest percentages of eligible residents screened. In 2012, almost 70 percent of the state’s adults aged 50 years and older who were surveyed said they have had a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy — two screening tests for colorectal cancer. An encouraging note is that more than 67 percent of blacks interviewed reported to have been screened. The Incidence and death rates of colorectal cancer are higher in African Americans than in any other race.

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Did You Know? Colorectal Cancer Statistics

Key statistics about colorectal cancer from the SEER Cancer Statistics Review

Key statistics about colorectal cancer from the SEER Cancer Statistics Review

The ACS recommends that people of average risk for colorectal cancer should begin screening at age 50. . The American College of Gastroenterology, however, recommends that African Americans of average risk should begin screening at age 45. People of high risk, such as those with a familial history of the disease, should begin at an earlier age. Your doctor will recommend a schedule that takes into account your risk factors.