What you need to know about colorectal cancer

New age to start colonoscopies is 45

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and experts say there is an urgent need to raise awareness.

A lot of what people thought they knew about colorectal cancer has changed recently. This is a situation where what you don’t know can kill you.

We’re dealing with cancers people don’t like to talk about and a screening people go to great lengths to avoid. But if caught early, colorectal cancer is highly treatable, or with a colonoscopy, even preventable.

People are much more alert to the need for screening for colon and rectal cancer than they were, you know, five or ten years ago.

Awareness is increasing, says Doctor Harry Wasvary, chief of colon and rectal surgery at Corewell Health. But millions of Americans who are eligible for a colonoscopy still haven’t gotten one.

“A lot of it is the prep. The bowel preparation is always an issue. And just the whole thought of what is being done with the given colonoscopy. People are afraid to talk about it,” Wasvary said.

Colonoscopy is the gold standard of screening, but if you’re over 45 and at average risk, a home stool test like Cologuard is another option.

“People are less reluctant to go ahead and do proper screening because it’s less invasive and can be done in the privacy of your home. And that seems to be more suitable for people,” said Wasvary.

Wasvary says many people don’t realize colorectal cancer is increasing in younger people. The new age to start colonoscopies is 45.

“It is on the rise for whatever reason we haven’t put our fingers on it. Younger people are getting colon and rectal cancer and they’re presenting with a more advanced stage. So the move from 50 to age 45 is a big move because it’s just that greater number of people that will be screened at the appropriate time,” Wasvary said.

Another thing you need to know: Most colorectal cancers don’t cause symptoms in the early stages.

“Most people present without symptoms. They don’t have risk factors, family history. They’re not necessarily bleeding. Sometimes, they’re anemic and their blood counts are low. But you don’t know what you don’t know. And most people are surprised because they come in without symptoms, they get the colonoscopy and we discover the problem,” Wasvary said.

But if you do have symptoms, at any age, don’t ignore them.

“Do you have signs of fatigue? Anemia? Low blood counts? Is there evidence of bleeding? Get that checked out. Everybody just blows it off. ‘Oh, it’s just hemorrhoids.’ But if it continues to bleed, get checked,” Wasvary said.

Finally, don’t wait on your doctor to bring up screening or ask about your family history. Be proactive, talk about your personal risks, and make a screening plan with your doctor.

It is not really clear why colon cancer is increasing in younger people. There are a lot of theories about how diet, lack of exercise, and obesity could be having an impact, but no one has pinpointed a definitive cause.

What is clear is that cases are rising and that everyone needs to pay more attention to colorectal cancer and screening.

About the Author:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.