Early detection key for colorectal cancer

Early detection key for colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer, or colon cancer, is a cancer that occurs in the colon or rectum.

Colon cancer affects both men and women of all racial and ethnic groups and is most often found in people 50 years or older. However, numbers are on the rise for those younger than 50. Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the U.S., and the second leading cause of cancer death. The American Cancer Society estimates that this year 136,830 people will be diagnosed and 50,310 will die from this disease.

The good news is that, when discovered early, it is highly treatable.

Early Detection

Research is constantly being done to help us learn more and to provide hope for people—no matter what stage of cancer they are. Most colon cancers develop first as polyps, which are abnormal growths inside the colon or rectum that may later become cancerous if not removed.

With regular screening, colon cancer can be found early when treatment is most effective. In many cases, screening can prevent colon cancer by finding and removing polyps before they become cancer. And if cancer is present, earlier detection means a chance at a longer or even normal life expectancy. Generally, the more advanced colon cancer is at detection, the lower the survival rate.

Risk Factors

On average, the lifetime risk of developing colon cancer is about one in 20 (5 percent), however, this varies widely according to these individual risk factors. 

  • Race. African-American men and women have a higher risk of developing colon cancer and a lower survival rate. Jews of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) may have a higher rate of colon cancer. The risk of death is also increased for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives.
  • Age 50+. Colon cancer becomes more common as people get older. In fact, more than 90 percent of people with this disease are diagnosed after age 50. The average age at diagnosis is 72.
  • Family history of polyps. If you or a family member has a history of polyps, you should be screened more frequently, as this puts you at a higher risk for colon cancer.
  • Family history of colon cancer. People with a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or children) who has colon cancer are between two and three times the risk of developing the cancer than those without a family history, especially if the relative was diagnosed at a younger (less than 50 years) age. If many close relatives have a history of colon cancer, the risk is even greater.
  • Genetic alterations. Changes in certain genes increase the risk of colon cancer.
  • Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. If you have this condition that causes inflammation of the colon, you may be at increased risk of developing colon cancer.
  • Personal history of cancer. If you have already had colon cancer, you may be at increased risk for developing the disease a second time. Also, women with a history of ovarian, breast or uterine cancer are at a somewhat higher risk of developing colon cancer.
  • Diet and lifestyle. Studies suggest that diets high in red meat and fat (especially animal fat) and low in calcium, folate and fiber may increase risk of colon cancer. Also, some studies suggest people who eat a diet very low in fruits and vegetables may have a higher risk of colon cancer. Inactivity and obesity have also been linked to higher risk of colon cancer. Studies have shown that daily physical activity can decrease colon cancer risk by as much as 50 percent.
  • Cigarette smoking. A person who smokes cigarettes may be at increased risk of developing polyps and colon cancer.

A note about age

Colon cancer has become a reality for many people younger than age 50, and it’s the only group where incidence rates are on the rise. In fact, 11% of colon cancer diagnoses and 18% of rectal cancer diagnoses occur in those under 50.

Despite defined risk factors, the hard reality is that you’re never too young for colon cancer. That’s why patients need to educate themselves about the risks of this disease now regardless of whether you currently have symptoms or are of average risk.


  • Change in bowel habits, including diarrhea, constipation, a change in the consistency of your stool or finding your stools are narrower than usual
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas, or pain and/or feeling full, bloated or that your bowel does not empty completely
  • Rectal bleeding—finding blood (either bright red or very dark) in your stool
  • Weakness or fatigue can also accompany losing weight for no known reason, nausea or vomiting

If you are experiencing symptoms, are at risk or are 50 years or older, contact your doctor to schedule a screening. Your doctor can help you decide which test is right for you. For more information or to schedule a screening, call Marshall Internal Medicine at 304-691-1000.


Akash V. Ajmera, MD

Dr. Ajmera is a board-certified gastroenterologist with Marshall Internal Medicine and an assistant professor and chief of gastroenterology at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.