When should I see the doctor? 

Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is a great time to educate patients about this common form of cancer. As a surgical oncologist and colorectal surgeon, I want patients to know that colorectal cancer is treatable and sometimes even preventable! 

Here are some steps you can take to stay healthy. Spoiler alert: the most crucial one is following the colonoscopy screening schedule your physician recommends. 

Know your risk 

Colorectal cancer strikes men and women pretty evenly, and risk increases with age. A history of inflammatory bowel disease can raise your risk, as can a family history of colorectal cancer. 

Lifestyle factors that increase your risk include being sedentary, overweight, smoking, moderate to heavy drinking, and eating a lot of red and processed meat. 

Understand the warning signs 

Having risk factors does not mean you’ll get colon cancer, but having no risk factors doesn’t mean you won’t either. For example, the disease is becoming more common among younger people. 

Therefore, paying attention to common warning signs is important. 

Changes in bowel habits, diarrhea, constipation, and blood in your stool aren’t fun to talk about, but you should bring them up to your doctor. 

Don’t fear the colonoscopy 

If you have symptoms, your doctor may order a colonoscopy. We also recommend that average-risk patients start routine screening colonoscopies at age 45. 

We realize people dread colonoscopies! However, after the test, most patients tell me it wasn’t nearly as bad as they feared. 

You do have to prep the day before to clear out your bowels. The test itself takes about an hour, and you’re asleep the whole time. You go home shortly after it’s done. 

Also, if your test comes back clear, you usually won’t need another one for 10 years. 

A colonoscopy can prevent cancer 

Then, there’s the best news about colonoscopies: they can actually prevent colon cancer or catch it early. 

If we find a polyp, we remove it. This is because polyps can be precancerous, so removing them stops them from turning into cancer. 

If a polyp is cancerous, removing it may be the only treatment you need. However, if you need additional treatment, it is highly effective at curing colorectal cancer if the disease is caught early. 

Be proactive 

Talking to your doctor about your screening needs and following through with colonoscopies is the best thing you can do to reduce your colorectal cancer risk. 

Other tests are available, too. For example, genetic testing may be an option for patients with a family history. In addition, average-risk patients can ask about fecal blood tests that are less invasive than colonoscopies. 

Also, try to eat a balanced, high-fiber diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Get regular exercise and avoid tobacco and alcohol. 

Being aware and proactive can protect your health and help you avoid chemotherapy and major surgery. Get started during Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and keep it going all year! 

By Elizabeth Wood, MD, FACS 

Regional One Health Cancer Care’s Elizabeth Wood, MD, FACS, is a colorectal surgeon and surgical oncologist. Learn more at regionalonehealth.org/oncology or 901.515.HOPE (4673).