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Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month - How to Lower Your Risk

Written by Dr. Patrick Wagner, surgical oncologist.

Statistics & Risk Factors

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be about 135,000 new cases of colorectal cancer in the US in 2017; with an overall lifetime risk between 4 and 5%, or about 1 in 20 Americans. Although treatment for colorectal cancer has improved dramatically over the last few decades, about a third of cases will ultimately be fatal.

Sometimes, we don’t know what specifically causes cancer, but there are several risk factors for colorectal cancer including obesity, lack of physical activity, diets high in red or processed meats, smoking, heavy alcohol use, a personal or family history of colon polyps or cancers and Type 2 diabetes. Some people have a genetic or familial syndrome that causes colorectal cancer, and African Americans have a higher rate of colon cancer than other racial and ethnic groups. Diets high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains have been linked with a lower risk of colorectal cancer.


Screening is the process of looking for cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease. The goal of colorectal cancer screening is to remove polyps before they become cancerous, or to detect cancers at an early, curable stage. This is effective because it generally takes 10-15 years for a cancer to develop, usually after progressing through the polyp stage.

Screening tests include endoscopy and fecal testing for blood or DNA. Endoscopy is the process of looking at the internal lining of the colon with a camera, and generally is done under sedation and requires the colon to be cleaned out with a bowel prep. Some individuals who cannot undergo colonoscopy may be screened using contrast x-rays or CT scans, although these methods are not as effective and cannot be used to remove polyps if they are found.

Starting at age 50, men and women at average risk for developing colorectal cancer should ideally be screened with colonoscopy every 10 years. Certain conditions warrant a more aggressive screening schedule, including a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease), or a hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome.

Talk to Your Doctor

Prevention and screening for colorectal cancer are the most effective weapons in the fight against this deadly disease. Unfortunately, only about half of people who should get screened for colorectal cancer actually do. Please ask your primary care physician today to discuss your personal colorectal cancer prevention strategy, and to ensure that you are up-to-date on your screening for colorectal and other cancers.