Colorectal Cancer Facts

Colorectal Cancer (CRC) refers to cancer that occurs anywhere in the large intestine, including the rectum.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2014 there will be 96,830 new cases of colon cancer in the United States and will result in 50,310 deaths.  Yet, colon cancer is often preventable when the early warning signs are detected through routine colonoscopy screening. If colon cancer does occur, it is treated more successfully when caught early. This type of cancer is preventable through screening and the removal of polyps.

Colorectal cancers develop slowly over many years. Most of these cancers start as a polyp — a growth of tissue that starts in the lining and grows into the center of the colon or rectumA polyp consists of abnormal tissue. A colorectal polyp is a fleshy growth occurring on the lining of the colon or rectum. Untreated colorectal polyps can develop into colorectal cancer. Polyps are relatively common. In fact, 50 percent of people over age 60 have polyps. If undetected, some polyps can become cancerous over the course of several years. Untreated colon cancer can spread to other parts of the body.

Colon cancer screening guidelines

The majority of people who develop polyps and cancer don’t have any obvious risk factors, but certain things are known to put you at higher risk of developing colon cancer.

Answer these questions to see if you might be at risk for colorectal cancer:

  1. Are you age 50 or over?
  2. Are you African-American?
  3. Do you have any family members with a history of precancerous colon polyps or colon cancer?
  4. Do you have a history of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis?
  5. Do you smoke?
  6. Is your alcohol intake excessive?
  7. Do you have a sedentary lifestyle?
  8. Are you overweight or obese?
  9. Do you have Type 2 diabetes?

How many “Yes” answers put you at increased risk of colon cancer? ANY of these questions to which you answered “Yes” can increase your chances.

Thanks to improvements in colon cancer screening and prevention, early detection, and treatment, more than a million people in the US count themselves as survivors of colon or rectum cancer (also called colorectal cancer).

More than half of all cancer deaths could be prevented by making healthy choices like not smoking, staying at a healthy weight, eating right, and keeping active.

Five myths about colorectal cancer

In many cases, colorectal cancer can be prevented. Still, it’s one of the 5 most common cancers in men and women in the United States. Colorectal cancer is also one of the leading causes of cancer death in the United States. Don’t let these 5 common myths stop you from getting the lifesaving tests you need, when you need them.

Myth: Colorectal cancer is a man’s disease.
Truth: Colorectal cancer is just as common among women as men. Each year, about 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and more than 50,000 die from it.

Myth: Colorectal cancer cannot be prevented.
Truth: In many cases colorectal cancer can be prevented. Colorectal cancer almost always starts with a small growth called a polyp. If the polyp is found early, doctors can remove it and stop colorectal cancer before it starts. These tests can find polyps: double contrast barium enema, flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, or CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy). Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you. Other ways to help lower your chances of getting colorectal cancer:

  • Get to and stay at a healthy weight throughout life; stay lean without being underweight.
  • Be physically active; limit the time you spend sitting, lying down, watching TV, etc.
  • Eat at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits each day.
  • Choose whole grains over refined grain products.
  • Limit the amount of red meat and processed meat you eat.
  • If you drink alcohol, limit the amount to 1 drink per day for women, 2 per day for men.
  • Don’t use tobacco in any form.

Myth: African Americans are not at risk for colorectal cancer.
Truth: African-American men and women are diagnosed with and die from colorectal cancer at higher rates than men and women of any other US racial or ethnic group. The reason for this is not yet understood.

Myth: Age doesn’t matter when it comes to getting colorectal cancer.
Truth: More than 90% of all colorectal cancers are found in people who are 50 and older. For this reason, the American Cancer Society recommends you start getting checked for this cancer when you are 50. People who are at a higher risk for colorectal cancer—such as those who have colon or rectal cancer in their families—may need to begin testing when they are younger. Ask your doctor when you should start getting tested and how often you should be tested.

Myth: It’s better not to get tested for colorectal cancer because it’s deadly anyway.
Truth: Colorectal cancer is often highly treatable. If it’s found and treated early (while it’s small and before it has spread), the 5-year survival rate is about 90%. But because many people are not getting tested, only about 4 out of 10 are diagnosed at this early stage when treatment is most likely to be successful.

Colon and rectal cancer

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. Overall, the lifetime risk for developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 20 (5.1%). This risk is slightly higher in men than in women. A number of other factors (described in the section, “Risk factors for colorectal cancer”) may also affect a person’s risk for developing colorectal cancer.

The death rate (the number of deaths per 100,000 people per year) from colorectal cancer has been dropping for more than 20 years. There are a number of likely reasons for this. One is that polyps are being found by screening and removed before they can develop into cancers. Screening also allows more colorectal cancers to be found earlier, when the disease is easier to cure. In addition, treatment for colorectal cancer has improved over the last several years. As a result, there are now more than 1 million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United States.

Regular colorectal cancer screening or testing is one of the most powerful weapons for preventing colorectal cancer. Screening is the process of looking for cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease.

From the time the first abnormal cells start to grow into polyps, it usually takes about 10 to 15 years for them to develop into colorectal cancer. Regular screening can, in many cases, prevent colorectal cancer altogether. This is because some polyps, or growths, can be found and removed before they have the chance to turn into cancer. Screening can also result in finding colorectal cancer early, when it is highly curable.
Several tests are used to screen for colorectal cancer in people with an average risk of colorectal cancer. Ask your doctor which tests are available where you live and which options might be right for you.

People who have no identified risk factors (other than age) should begin regular screening at age 50. Certain risk factors cause more frequent screenings to be necessary.