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ARTICLE Early Detection is Key in Preventing and Treating Colorectal Cancer

Early Detection is Key in Preventing and Treating Colorectal Cancer

By Wyndolyn C. Bell, M.D., FAAP
UnitedHealthcare National Accounts
Vice President of Health Care Strategies

Knowing the facts about colorectal cancer – and getting the tests to prevent or diagnose it early – can save your life.

Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States; however, at least 60 percent of deaths from the disease can be avoided if people who are at least 50 years old receive their regular screening, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age, with more than 90 percent of cases occurring in people aged 50 or older. The National Cancer Institute reports that last year, more than 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer were diagnosed and about 50,000 people died from the disease.

As high as these numbers are, the trend is even more troubling for African Americans. The American Cancer Society reports that African Americans have the highest rate for colorectal cancer as well as the highest death rate compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the United States. One reason for the disparity may be less access to and utilization of recommended screenings and tests.

Colorectal cancer often begins as a small polyp that grows on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. While the majority of these polyps are harmless, some become cancerous. Symptoms may include a change in bowel habits, chronic stomach pain or bleeding, but colorectal cancer can also strike without noticeable symptoms. In most cases, proper screening prevents the occurrence of the disease by removing precancerous polyps before they develop into cancer.

There are a variety of tests that can be done for screening, but the most common is the colonoscopy. A colonoscopy allows the physician to look at the colon and remove polyps that may be there before they can become cancerous. The American Cancer Society recommends a colonoscopy every 10 years, starting at age 50, but genetic factors can also play a part, so it's important to know your family history and let your physician know if a relative has had colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps. In that case, you may be advised to be screened before age 50. Discuss your family and medical history and the screening options with your physician when you have your annual physical exam, or if you are concerned about gastrointestinal symptoms.

Along with timely screenings, here are additional tips to help minimize your risk:

  • See a health care professional regularly
  • Eat a diet high in fiber, and limit red meat, processed foods and other foods high in fat
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise
  • Quit smoking
  • Consume alcohol in moderation

Despite the large number of people with colorectal cancer, the prognosis is promising, because unlike some cancers, colorectal cancer can be preventable with increased awareness and proper screening.

As we observe the National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to contact your physician and visit one of several websites that contain valuable health information about the disease. Online resources include the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UnitedHealthcare's Generations of Wellness website, which offers online tools and culturally relevant health information to help African Americans enhance their health and quality of life.