Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month: Let’s Talk Risk Factors
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, dedicated to encouraging patients, survivors, and caregivers to share their stories, advocate for colorectal cancer prevention, and inform others about the importance of early detection.
Colorectal cancer is cancer that forms in the colon or rectum, 2 areas of the digestive system that help remove solid waste from the body. It is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S. (American Cancer Society, n.d.). While it’s a common cancer, colorectal cancer rates have gone down as more people have routine colorectal cancer screenings. Some of these screening tests, like colonoscopies, let doctors remove polyps (abnormal growths) before they can develop into cancer.
Know Your Health History
About 1 in 3 people who develop colorectal cancer have a family history of the disease (American Cancer Society, n.d.). Knowing your family and personal health history and sharing that information with your doctor can help lower your risk.
- Personal or family history of colorectal cancer: Those with a close relative (parent, sibling, or child) who has a history of colorectal cancer are at risk for developing colorectal cancer. The risk is higher if that relative was diagnosed when they were under 50 or if more than 1 close relative (parent, sibling, or child) has the disease.
- Personal or family history of polyps: Most colorectal cancers develop first as polyps, which are abnormal growths inside the colon or rectum that may later become cancerous if not removed.
- Inherited genetic condition: Between 5%-7% of colorectal cancer patients inherited a gene mutation that greatly increased their lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer (Colorectal Cancer Alliance, n.d.). Lynch syndrome is the most common hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome. Learn more about inherited forms of colorectal cancer.
If you have had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer or have a family history of the disease, it is important to talk to your family and friends. Talking to some family members about cancer and the importance of screening might not always be easy but having that conversation could save lives.
Other risk factors include:
- Increased age: Nearly 94% of new cases of colorectal cancer occur in adults age 45 years and older (U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, 2020)
- A personal history of ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer (cancer in the lining of the uterus), or breast cancer
- Chronic inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
- Type 2 diabetes
More than half of colorectal cancers are caused by lifestyle factors, including excess body weight, little or no physical activity, smoking, eating a lot of red or processed meat, heavy alcohol use, not getting enough calcium, and a diet that does not include grains, fruit, and vegetables (American Cancer Society, 2021).
Colorectal Cancer Disparities
While cancer affects all population groups in the U.S., certain groups bear a greater burden of cancer compared to other groups because of health and socioeconomic (social, environmental, and economic) disadvantages. The term for this is cancer disparities (or health disparities). Cancer disparities are due to a host of factors including systemic racism; lack of trust of the health care system; lower levels of awareness in areas such as prevention, screening, and early detection; challenges around access to high-quality cancer care; and cost of care.
Black and African Americans are 20% more likely to get colorectal cancer compared to their White counterparts and face a 40% higher death rate from colorectal cancer (Belluck, 2020). Black and African Americans are also more likely to be diagnosed with cancer in later stages after the cancer has spread, when the cancer is harder to treat.
CSC supports health care policies that seek to break down disparities in care and enable all individuals to have access to affordable medical care and treatments.
Colorectal Cancer Resources and Support
If you are living with colorectal cancer or are a caregiver to someone with colorectal cancer, the Cancer Support Community offers a variety of resources to help ease the burden of your journey.
Visit our colorectal cancer page for more information about the disease, including risk factors, testing, different treatment options, and how to cope. On this page you can also find our Frankly Speaking About Cancer Library, which includes publications and videos.
American Cancer Society. (n.d.). About Colorectal Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/about.html.
American Cancer Society. (2021). Cancer Facts & Figures 2021. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/annual-cancer-facts-and-figures/2021/cancer-facts-and-figures-2021.pdf.
Belluck, P. (2020). What to know about colon cancer. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/29/health/colon-cancer-chadwick-boseman.html.
Colorectal Cancer Alliance. (n.d.). Family History and Hereditary Colorectal Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.ccalliance.org/screening-prevention/family-history.