Op-Ed: March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month — here’s what you need to know

Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month (Photo via Getty Images)

Think you’re not at risk for colorectal cancer? Think again.

Despite a general decline in rates over the last 40 years, colorectal cancer remains the third most common type of cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S., yet it’s one of the few cancers that can be prevented with routine screening. As we observe Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, I hope you will read on to learn more.

An estimated 153,020 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 52,550 are expected to die of this disease in 2023. In New York alone, an estimated 8,970 will be diagnosed and 2,770 will die of colorectal cancer. While colorectal cancer can impact anyone, death rates are 44% higher in Black men and 21% higher in Black women compared to their white counterparts. And since the 1990s, for reasons that are not well understood, colorectal cancer has been on the rise in adults younger than 50.

We can and must do better. Many Americans aren’t getting screened. The Prevent Cancer Foundation’s 2023 Early Detection Survey found that nearly one in five Americans 45 years of age and older say they have never had a colorectal cancer screening. The Prevent Cancer Foundation supports the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommendation that adults of average risk ages 45 to 75 get screened for colorectal cancer. (Talk to your health care provider about whether you should continue screening if you are over 75.)

The survey also found that 32% of people of screening age didn’t get screened for colorectal cancer because they didn’t have any symptoms. Routine colorectal cancer screening can prevent cancer or detect it early – often before symptoms appear. During a colonoscopy, your doctor can find and remove precancerous growths (polyps) before they become cancer. If cancer is already present, treatment is more likely to be successful if it is found early.

What are the options for colorectal cancer screening? Colonoscopies (where polyps can be identified and removed), should be done every 10 years (your doctor may recommend more frequent screening based on your risk factors). You may also consider a virtual colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years or an at-home stool-based test every one to three years. An abnormal result on these should always be followed up with a colonoscopy. Talk to your health care provider about which screening option is best for you.

If you’re at increased risk for colorectal cancer (including having inflammatory bowel disease or a history of polyps), you may need to start regular screening at an earlier age and/or be screened more often.

It’s also important to know common symptoms of colorectal cancer: blood in the stool (which can make the stool look black), changes in bowel movements (diarrhea or constipation) that last for more than a few days, abdominal pain or cramping that does not go away or unintended weight loss. Though these could be signs of other conditions, talk to your health care provider if symptoms persist.

Finally, consider your lifestyle choices. You may be able to reduce your risk by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, not using tobacco, limiting alcohol and eating a plant-based diet. To learn more, visit preventcancer.org/colorectal.

Dr. Wayne Kye is the spouse of U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens) and a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program. Statistics provided by the American Cancer Society.