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  health > cancer > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

Colorectal cancer: Find it before it finds you

June 15, 1999
Web posted at: 10:24 AM EDT (1424 GMT)

In this story:

Risk factors



By Bob Roehr

(WebMD) -- Imagine a pro football stadium filled with people on a bright Sunday afternoon. Then imagine most of those people dead within 12 months.

That's how many Americans will die of colorectal cancer this year, an estimated 56,600 in 1999. It's the No. 2 cause of cancer death in the United States. Twice that number will be diagnosed with the disease. The sad thing is that most of these deaths could be prevented with early diagnosis. That's why screening for colorectal cancer should be part of your regular health care, especially after you reach the age of 50.

Colorectal cancer affects the colon (the large intestine) or the rectum. The colon absorbs nutrients from food that has passed through the stomach and small intestine. It also stores waste, particularly in the rectum, until it is passed from the body.

The five-year survival rate for those diagnosed at a local stage of disease is 91 percent. Even after it has spread locally, 66 percent can beat this cancer. But if it spreads throughout the body, only 9 percent pull through.

Risk factors

None of these factors absolutely predicts that you will develop colorectal cancer, but each is a flashing yellow warning light to pay attention.

Age: Incidence of colorectal cancer begins to take off dramatically around age 50.

Diet: A high-fat and high-calorie diet seems to lead to increased risk, while one that has ample fiber, fruit and vegetables may reduce that risk.

Exercise: Exercise helps keep stool movements regular, thus reducing exposure to potential carcinogens and stress on the bowel.

Polyps: These benign intestinal growths are where cancers appear most frequently. Detecting and removing them greatly reduces your risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Family history: There is probably a genetic component of vulnerability to many cancers. So if a blood relative has had colorectal cancer, you may one day have it too. The more people on your family tree have had it, the more likely you are to join them.

Personal history: Prior colorectal cancer and ulcerative colitis (an inflammation of the colon) increase your risk.

Detection and diagnosis

  • A digital rectal examination can detect many rectal tumors and a few in the lower intestine. It takes just a few minutes and is only slightly uncomfortable.
  • A fecal occult blood test checks for hidden blood in your stools. It should be part of a regular physical examination, especially for those over 50.
  • Sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy are procedures that use a lighted instrument to look for polyps and cancers on the inside of your rectum and colon. It should be done once every five years beginning with middle age, or more frequently if you have a condition that should be monitored more closely.
  • A barium enema and series of X-rays may also be used to identify problem areas of the colon.
  • Treatment

    The treatment you choose depends on the stage and extent of your disease. It can involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and biological therapy -- either alone or in combination.

    Copyright 1999 by WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Colon and Rectal Cancers
    Colon Cancer: Facts to Know

    American Cancer Society: Colorectal Cancer
    National Cancer Institute: Colorectal Cancer
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