March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. It is often a topic that people find embarrassing, painful and disgusting.
Let's face it - this involves a part of the body and bodily functions that people don't talk about in polite conversation, said Evelyn Barella of American Cancer Society.
Hopefully, people can get past this attitude and get on with testing. It could save a life.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men and women and one of the leading causes of cancer death in the United States, Barella said. What makes these statistics so surprising is that colorectal cancer can be preventable, treatable and beatable.
Here's the truth for five common colorectal cancer myths, courtesy of the American Cancer Society.
Myth: Colorectal cancer is a man's disease.
Truth: Colorectal cancer is just as common among women as men. Each year, about 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and about 50,000 die from the disease. Overall, a typical person's lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is one in 19.
Myth: Colorectal cancer can't be prevented.
Truth: In many cases colorectal cancer can be prevented. Colorectal cancer almost always starts with a small growth called a polyp. If the polyp is found early, typically through screening tests, doctors can remove it and stop colorectal cancer before it starts. Any of these tests can find polyps: double contrast barium enema, flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, or CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy). Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you.
To help lower your chances of getting colorectal cancer:
- Get to and stay at a healthy weight.
- Be physically active.
- Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less red or processed meat.
- Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. The American Cancer Society recommends a maximum of two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. Don't use tobacco in any form.
Myth: African Americans are not at risk for colorectal cancer.
Truth: African-American men and women are diagnosed with and die from colorectal cancer at higher rates than men and women of any other U.S. racial or ethnic group. The reason for this is not yet understood.
Myth: Age doesn't matter when it comes to getting colorectal cancer.
Truth: Nine out of 10 colorectal cancer cases are in people age 50 and older. For this reason, the American Cancer Society recommends you start getting tested for the disease at age 50.
People who are at a higher risk for colorectal cancer such as those who have a family history of the disease may need to begin testing at a younger age. Talk to your doctor about when you should start getting tested.
Myth: It's not necessary to get tested for colorectal cancer because most people die from it anyway.
Truth: Colorectal cancer is often highly treatable. If it is found and treated early (while it is small and before it has spread), the five-year survival rate is about 90 percent. But because many people are not getting tested, only about four out of 10 are diagnosed at this early stage when treatment is most likely to be successful.
Signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer
Colorectal cancer may cause one or more of the symptoms below. If you have any of the following you should see your doctor:
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days.
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so.
- Rectal bleeding, dark stools, or blood in the stool (often, though, the stool will look normal).
- Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain.
- Weakness and fatigue.
- Unintended weight loss.
Most of these symptoms are more often caused by conditions other than colorectal cancer, such as infection, hemorrhoids, or inflammatory bowel disease. Still, if you have any of these problems, it's important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
The American Cancer Society has more information about colorectal risk factors, prevention and screening at cancer.org.