In 2017, the American Cancer Society estimates that 95,520 new cases of colon cancer will be diagnosed in the United States.
Although a woman's lifetime risk of developing colon cancer is slightly lower than it is for men—about 1 in 21 for men and about 1 in 23 for women—it is still the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths for women.
And that risk almost doubles if you've had a close relative with colon cancer or polyps after age 50, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. Your risk is also higher if the cancer or polyps were diagnosed at a younger age or if more members of your family are affected.
Fortunately, the death rate from this cancer has been dropping, due to better screening and detection and improved treatment. Screening can find polyps in their early stages, when they are precancerous and can be removed before they turn into cancer. Screening can also detect the cancer when it is in an early stage and more treatable.
But, unfortunately, people still do lose their lives to this cancer. Just a few days ago, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that for people in their 20s and 30s, colon cancer rates increased about 1 percent to 2 percent per year from the mid-1980s to 2013. Comparing different generations at similar ages, the study found that people born around 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer as people born around 1950, according to the Washington Post.
While rates of colon and rectal cancer are climbing in young and middle-aged adults, they continue to decline in adults 55 and over. The reasons are not known, although it could be partly because it's older adults who are benefitting from screening and early detection, raising the question as to whether screening should start earlier.
It is so important to get screened beginning at age 50 (or younger, if you have certain risk factors) and be aware of colon cancer's signs. Because, even though colonoscopies are such an effective way of detecting and preventing colon cancer and thus, saving lives, too many people don't get them.
Here are signs to look for:
- Has there been a change in your bowel habits? You may be experiencing persistent diarrhea or constipation, a change in the consistency of your stool that persists longer than four weeks.
- Do you have rectal bleeding or blood in your stool?
- Does it feel like your bowel is not completely emptying?
- Do you feel weak or fatigued?
- Are you losing weight for no apparent reason?
- Do you have persistent cramping, gas or pain, or overall abdominal discomfort?
In addition to having a family member with colon cancer, your risk grows if you are African-American, have inflammatory intestinal conditions like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, or have inherited genetic syndromes like Lynch syndrome. Additionally, if you live a sedentary lifestyle, smoke, drink heavily, have diabetes, are obese or eat a diet low if fiber and high in fat, your risk can climb as well.
Colon cancer screening is not limited to just colonoscopies: other strategies (either single or combined) are available, depending on your needs and history, like fecal occult blood testing, fecal immunochemical testing, stool DNA testing, sigmoidoscopy and virtual colonoscopy.
And if these screenings are not exactly your cup of tea, here's an advantage to growing older: According to guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American College of Physicians, once you reach the age of 75 with consistently negative screenings since age 50, routine screening may no longer be necessary.