Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in American men and women separately, and the second leading cause when the sexes are combined, says the American Cancer Society. The good news? Early detection and regular screenings can help prevent the disease and often cure it.

What Colorectal Cancer Is

Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in the inner lining of the colon (the large intestine) or rectum. The cancer begins as a polyp, and eventually cancer cells can break free and spread to other parts of the body. It's important to remember that polyps are often benign, but some may lead to cancer.

Both men and women are at risk for colorectal cancer. Men have a one in 21 chance of getting it; women, a one in 23 chance. Experts aren't sure why, but African-American men and women have an even higher risk. "We know that when African-Americans and men get it, the cancer is more aggressive," says Kelly Gilmore-Lynch, MD, colorectal surgeon at Clear Lake Regional Medical Center in Webster, Texas.

Causes

Studies show that certain factors may increase your risk of developing colon cancers, but why and how they affect the disease is still unknown. Being overweight or inactive, eating a diet rich in red or processed meats, smoking and heavy drinking can all increase your risk. Those over 50 or those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have an increased risk, too.

Up to 20 percent of people with colon cancer have a family history of it. When the disease runs in the family, colon cancer can hit harder than in other cases, says Dr. Gilmore-Lynch.

Signs and Symptoms

Colon cancer is sometimes called a "silent killer" because it often has no symptoms until the disease has progressed. "A lot of people will end up in the hospital with bleeding or an obstruction, and will have never had a colonoscopy because they were never sick," says Gilmore-Lynch. Here are some symptoms that may indicate cancer:

  • Prolonged bowel problems like diarrhea and constipation
  • Feeling like you still have to go after a bowel movement
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Blood in the stool
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Abdominal discomfort, pain or cramping
  • Anemia

Screening Options

Screening can help doctors find the polyps and remove them early on, or diagnose and suggest treatment. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the American Cancer Society recommend screenings for people with average risk beginning at age 50. "If there is a family history of colon cancer or even colon polyps, screenings should be done beginning at age 40, or 10 years younger than the age at diagnosis, whichever comes first," says Gilmore-Lynch.

Here are the most common types of screenings:

  • Colonoscopy: A flexible tube is inserted into the colon and rectum
    to check for anything out of the ordinary. If polyps are found, they
    are normally removed for testing. Should be done every 10 years.
  • High-Sensitivity Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT): The stool is tested for blood. Should be done every year, if choosing this as an alternative to colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy.
  • Flexible Sigmoidoscopy: A flexible tube is inserted to check the rectum and last part of the colon. Should be done every five years.

Unfortunately, many people put off the screening process for fear that it will be uncomfortable and lengthy. Once you've finished prepping, the actual procedure is short and usually painless. "Most people don't even realize a procedure has been done. They wake up, they're a little bloated, but they don't feel any pain. They're amazed that it's already been done," says Gilmore-Lynch. She thinks of a colonoscopy like changing the oil in your car. "It's maintenance. If you don't take care of your body, something will happen or can happen."

Treatment

The cancer's stage, location and type will all dictate which treatment option is right for you. Options include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy

Prevention

While you can't control your genes, you can take care of your body. Here are steps you can take to lower your risk of colon cancer:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Quit smoking
  • Stay active and exercise regularly
  • Avoid overeating red meat, and eat plenty of fiber
  • Limit alcoholic beverages to one or two drinks a day
  • Get regular screening