Colorectal cancer is one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers in the U.S., but it’s also one of the hardest for patients to detect. The majority of those with early colorectal cancer don’t show any symptoms, which means by the time it’s discovered, they may be in a later stage of the disease, making it harder to treat. Another paradox of colorectal cancer? Symptoms that do indicate the disease, such as rectal bleeding, a change in bowel habits, or abdominal pain, can occur in other conditions that affect the digestive system such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a condition in which the colon is inflamed over a long period of time. Since there is no one symptom that denotes colorectal cancer, how do you distinguish between digestive upset and something more serious, such as colorectal cancer?
“Benign gastrointestinal distress is actually quite common,” said Bonnie A. Ewald, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. “Depending on the symptom — a change in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation, or change in stool caliber, for example — if it is temporary and you return to normal relatively quickly, it is less likely to be the result of colorectal cancer.”
Given the similarity of symptoms among conditions such as IBD and colorectal cancer, is there a connection?
“Colon cancer can occur in patients without IBD, but people who have forms of it, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease are at increased risk of developing colon cancer,” said Ewald. “Due to this increased risk, patients with these disorders should be screened more often and be followed by a gastroenterologist.”
It’s not just IBD that increases your risk for colon cancer. If you have a first-degree relative who suffered from the disease, the American College of Gastroenterology recommends screenings starting at age 40, or 10 years younger than they were when they were first diagnosed. For those without these risk factors Ewald recommends screenings such as a colonoscopy starting at age 50.
In addition to screenings, Ewald stresses the importance of paying attention to your body, noting any alarming changes or symptoms to your physician, and following a healthy lifestyle to help curb your risk of developing colon cancer. This includes maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise, and health-conscious diet.
“Studies have shown an association between a diet high in fruits and vegetables and protection from colon cancer,” Ewald said. “And there has been some data supportive of a protective effect of a pescatarian or vegetarian diet in contrast to a non-vegetarian diet.”
Making these lifestyle changes may also help alleviate the symptoms of other digestive distresses, which may be welcomed news for those suffering from them.
If you have questions about colon cancer or other gastrointestinal health issues, speak with a Lahey Health physician.