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Screening key for colorectal cancer

Editor’s Note

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.

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March is National Colorectal Cancer Month. Colorectal cancer claims the lives of more Americans each year than any other cancer, with the exception of lung cancer. In 2019 alone, 51,000 people lost their battle with the deadly disease, and yet, most Americans are not following screening recommendations to catch it in its early stages.

Colorectal cancers start as growths called polyps inside the colon or rectum. While not all polyps will turn into cancer, those precancerous polyps which are found early through proper screening can be removed before they have the chance to grow. Cancerous polyps which go undetected grow outward through the colon wall, eventually spreading from blood vessels and lymph nodes to other parts of the body.

There are many risk factors which can contribute to colorectal cancer. While some of these are lifestyle choices which can be managed, others are related to a person’s age or genetic makeup and cannot be changed, which makes catching polyps through screening that much more important.

Among those risk factors within a person’s control is their weight. People who are overweight are at a greater risk of dying from colon cancer, as are those who do not maintain a regular level of physical activity, which can also help moderate weight gain. Staying active physically can also help control the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, another potential contributor to colorectal cancer. In fact, some studies suggest the risk of colorectal cancer is greater in diabetics who have been obese over several years.

Diet can also contribute to colorectal cancer. Red meats like beef and lamb may increase the risk for colorectal cancer when not consumed in moderation, as can processed meats, like lunch meat and hot dogs. Conversely, a diet high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables can help lower the risk for colorectal cancer.

Other lifestyle choices which can lead to a greater chance of developing the disease include smoking and alcohol consumption. While smoking’s link to lung cancer is common knowledge, smokers are also more likely to die from colorectal cancer than are nonsmokers. Drinking alcohol, sometimes even in small amounts, has also been tied to a greater risk of colorectal cancer.

One of the biggest risk factors for colon cancer outside a person’s control is their age. While younger people are diagnosed with the disease, it is more prevalent in people over 50. This is why regular colonoscopies are recommended for adults once they turn 50. However, it is estimated that only 1 in 3 people between the ages of 50 and 75 are being screened as recommended.

Anyone whose family has a history of colorectal cancer may also have a greater chance of developing the disease themselves. Although most of those who are diagnosed do not have anyone else in their family who has had the disease, one-third of colorectal cancer patients do have close relatives who have also had it. That risk increases if that relative is a parent, sibling or child. Screenings for these people are often recommended earlier in life.

In some cases, close family members may develop colorectal cancer due to something in their environment, while heredity is a factor in other cases. In recent years scientists have made great breakthroughs in uncovering a number of inherited cancer syndromes, including Lynch syndrome, which are caused by genetic mutations passed from one generation to the next.

Testing is available for families which carry many genetic syndromes like Lynch syndrome. Once a person is identified as a carrier for the genetic mutation, it is recommended that other family members undergo testing for the gene or genes, since these mutant genes are not always passed on to that person’s children. However, family members carrying those genes can be identified early, so preventative screenings for colorectal and other cancers can begin at a younger age.

Colorectal cancer is also more likely to form in people who have a history of polyps, especially if those polyps are large or numerous. Regular screenings for colorectal cancer can help detect these polyps early, and in many cases, the smaller ones can be removed during the screening. A patient who has had colorectal cancer once also has a greater chance of having cancer reoccur in another part of the colon or rectum, even if their cancer was completely removed the first time.

People with inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, are also at greater risk for developing colorectal cancer. Screenings at a younger age are also recommended for these individuals. However, the risk of colorectal cancer does not increase for people who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is different from inflammatory bowel disease.

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Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines in familiar surroundings. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home consultation, call 330-332-1203.

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