5 facts you didn't know about colorectal cancer

Male doctor speaking with an older male patient.

You may know that colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in the colon or rectum. You may even know more details about it, like that it's the second leading cause of cancer related deaths in men and women. 

But there's a lot about colorectal cancer you might not know, such as how you prevent it (it might be easier than you think) and what symptoms can appear (they might be more subtle than you think).

Colorectal cancer, which can also be called colon or rectal cancer depending on where the cancer starts, is common. Fortunately, it's also preventable.

Here are 5 facts you may not know about colorectal cancer—some of which may save your life.

1. Colorectal cancer screening can prevent cancer.

"The single most important thing to know about colorectal cancer is that it's one of the most preventable cancers," says Sumedh D. Kakade, MD, a colorectal and general surgeon at Riddle Hospital, part of Main Line Health.

This is because colorectal cancer starts as polyps—or growths—in the rectum or colon. Sometimes, these polyps develop into cancer. Other times, they don't. This depends on:

  • The type of polyp
  • The size of the polyp
  • How many polyps there are
  • If there are any abnormalities in a polyp (called dysplasia)

During colorectal cancer screenings like colonoscopies, your provider can find and remove polyps (which can prevent cancer from ever developing) or can detect cancer early before it has had a chance to spread (when it's easier to treat).

2. Colorectal cancer cases are dropping—but not for everyone.

Thanks in part to screening, colorectal cancer and associated deaths are dropping. However, cases are actually on the rise in young people, alarmingly.

What's more, Black Americans also continue to face disproportionate rates of colorectal cancer. Compared to other racial groups, Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to develop colorectal cancer and about 40 percent more likely to die from it.

When it comes to young people, it may be related to lifestyle factors (like obesity, physical inactivity and smoking), hereditary factors and importantly lack of early recognition of symptoms. This is likely causing an increasing number of colorectal cancer cases being diagnosed in later stages.

"As for Black Americans, the reasons are complex but include a combination of socio-economic disparities, access to healthcare, genetics and more. This population faces numerous hurdles and increasing awareness amongst the community is the first step we can take towards mitigating the burden that colorectal cancer poses," says Dr. Kakade.

3. The recommendation for colorectal cancer screening was lowered to age 45.

Partly due to rising cases among young folks, the American Cancer Society now recommends regular screening for colorectal cancer starting at age 45.

If you have a higher risk of colorectal cancer, talk to your provider about when you should start screening. This includes if you have:

  • A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or certain kinds of polyps.
  • A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
  • A family history of a hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome, such as Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis.
  • History of radiation to the abdomen or pelvic areas.

4. Colorectal cancer screenings can also be done at home.

If you're thinking you have to spend extra time out of your day getting screened for colorectal cancer, it might not be as bad as you think. There are two kinds of colorectal cancer screenings—stool-based tests (which are usually done at home) and visual tests (which are done at a health care facility).

While stool-based tests offer the convenience of not having to leave home (and they're often less expensive), you'll need to do these every year or at least every 3 years—depending on the type of test. Visual tests, like colonoscopy and CT colonography, must be done by a physician. However, they don't need to be done as frequently.

5. You might have no symptoms at all and still have colorectal cancer.

Perhaps a troubling fact about colorectal cancer—but an important one to be aware of—is that colorectal cancer might not cause any symptoms, especially at first. Signs and symptoms can also mimic other illnesses, causing confusion.

You could have polyps or colorectal cancer and may not be aware. This is why colorectal cancer screening is so key.

Colorectal cancer screening is done when you don't have symptoms. Still, it's important to be aware of some common symptoms that can arise from colorectal cancer, including:

  • Blood in your stool
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Pain or cramps in your abdominal area
  • A change in your bowel habits that lasts more than a few days
  • Unexplained weight loss

Preventing colorectal cancer together

Preventing colorectal cancer, or finding it early when it's easier to treat, is a team effort. It starts with you—making healthy lifestyle choices (like exercising regularly, eating a healthy and a high fiber diet and not smoking) and staying on top of colorectal cancer screenings.

But you're not in this alone. Your healthcare team can provide you with resources and support to prioritize your colorectal health. Together, we can make colorectal cancer less of a riddle and colorectal awareness more of a regular part of your health and wellness plan.

Next steps:

Learn more about Sumedh D. Kakade, MD 
Learn more about colorectal cancer care at Main Line Health 
Recognize the silent symptoms of colorectal cancer