March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month

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March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and a good time to learn more about how it can be prevented or best treated. Colorectal cancer -- cancer of the colon and rectum - is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.

Approximately 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed and 56,000 people will die from the disease this year. Surpassing both breast cancer and prostate cancer in mortality, colorectal cancer is second only to lung cancer in numbers of deaths in the United States.

Colorectal cancer strikes men and women with almost equal frequency. In addition, it is often a silent disease, developing with no symptoms at all. When symptoms do occur they may include the following:

  • Blood in stool

  • Change in bowel habits including diarrhea, constipation or narrow stools

  • General stomach discomfort (bloating, fullness, and/or cramps)

  • Weight loss or tiredness

Colon cancer can be prevented! The disease develops from benign polyps (mushroom-like growths in the colon). Removing these polyps by a colonoscopy before they become cancerous may prevent cancer from developing.

A low-fat diet, high in vegetable and fruit intake, and regular exercise can also lower your risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer can be cured in up to 90 percent of people when it is discovered in its early stages. It is estimated that approximately 40,000 lives a year could be saved through early detection using screening colonoscopy.

The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age. All men and women aged 50 and older are at risk for developing colorectal cancer, and should have a colonoscopy. Some people are at a higher risk and should be screened at an age younger than 50, including those with a personal or family history of inflammatory bowel disease; colorectal cancer or polyps; or ovarian, endometrial or breast cancer.

Screening is most effectively performed through a colonoscopy. This is a simple test which requires visual inspection of colon with a flexible camera. Costs are covered by Medicare and many commercial health plans.

* All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.