How to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. And in Pennsylvania, our rate of deaths from colorectal cancer is higher than the national average. Fortunately, colorectal cancer can often be prevented, or detected early and successfully treated, with regular screening. March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, an opportunity for all Americans to talk to their doctor about options for colorectal screenings.

“Colorectal cancer occurs when abnormal growths form in the colon or rectum,” said Taylor Grimm, a certified registered nurse practitioner with Penn Highlands Gastroenterology. “We often group colon cancer and rectal cancer because they have many features in common. The difference between the two is where the tumor first forms.”

Colorectal cancer may not present any symptoms at first, but as the tumor grows it can disrupt your body’s ability to digest food and remove waste. Common symptoms include persistent diarrhea, constipation, rectal bleeding, narrowing stool, abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss.

“Colorectal cancer is most successfully treated when it’s caught early. And screenings not only detect cancer before it spreads, they can also prevent cancer by detecting polyps before they become cancerous,” said Ms. Grimm.

Millions of people are missing the chance to prevent colorectal cancer because they are not being screened as recommended. The good news is that screening is easy and affordable. Most insurance plans help cover colorectal cancer screening for individuals 45 years and older, and screening tests may be covered by your health insurance policy without a deductible or co-pay.

There are six types of colon cancer screening tests, and the gastroenterologists at Penn Highlands recommend colonoscopies for most patients. It is one of the most reliable screenings, and it’s often less expensive than other tests.

Generally, a colonoscopy takes 30 to 60 minutes in which your doctor will use a colonoscope to examine your rectum and colon for signs of a tumor. Your doctor can also remove most polyps during the colonoscopy itself.

“The American Cancer Society recently updated its screening recommendations. Instead of 50 years of age, they now recommend most people begin screenings at 45 years of age,” said Ms. Grimm.

Doctors may recommend a different screening schedule for individuals with increased risk factors of colorectal cancer, including Type 2 diabetes, a history of radiation therapy directed at the abdomen or a family history of colorectal cancer.

If you are diagnosed with colon cancer or rectal cancer, you’ll be referred to a medical oncologist, who will explain your type of cancer, including stage and treatment options. Your medical oncologist will create an individualized cancer treatment plan that may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy or some combination.

“The most important thing is to talk to your healthcare provider about your risk for colorectal cancer and create a screening schedule that’s right for you,” said Ms. Grimm. “The earlier we start, the better chance we have of preventing colorectal cancer or catching it at the earliest stages.”

The physicians at Penn Highlands Gastroenterology Services have specialized training that allows them to provide high-quality and individualized care for people with gastrointestinal or GI conditions. They diagnose and treat diseases of the colon and rectum as well as esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, gallbladder, bile ducts and liver. Colonoscopies can be done on an outpatient basis at any Penn Highlands Healthcare hospital or The Endoscopy Center in DuBois. For more information, visit www.phhealthcare.org/gi.

Taylor Grimm CRNP
Taylor Grimm, a certified registered nurse practitioner with Penn Highlands Gastroenterology, showing a diagram of the colon within the digestive system, encourages everyone age 45 and older to have a colonoscopy to reduce their risk of colon cancer.