March 12, 2024

Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month: Debunking 8 colorectal cancer myths

Colorectal cancer is a combined term for colon and rectal cancers. According to the National Cancer Institute, 153,020 new cases of colorectal cancer were estimated for 2023.

In light of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March, we reached out to Dr. John Whitfield, a colorectal surgeon at Mission Health, to learn some of the most common misconceptions about colorectal cancer and why screenings are important to protecting your health.

Myth 1: Colorectal cancer is rare

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women worldwide. It’s also the second most common cause of cancer-related fatalities.

Myth 2: Only people with a family history get colorectal cancer

Roughly 1 in 3 people who develop colorectal cancer have a family history. Having a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, with colorectal cancer increases your risk. However, most new cases occur in people without a family history, and everyone’s personal risk is different. Having one or many risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll get colorectal cancer.

Myth 3: Older white men are more likely to get colorectal cancer

The lifetime risk of getting colorectal cancer is about 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 26 for women, so both men and women should be mindful of early screening. What’s more, Black men and women of all ages have a higher risk of getting and dying from colon cancer. Regardless of your risk level, there are options for risk reduction and early detection. Finding cancer early improves the chance of a cure.

Myth 4: You should only get a colonoscopy if you have symptoms

Colorectal cancer doesn’t always cause symptoms in its early stages. Early screening can detect it before it grows and becomes more apparent. The American Cancer Society recommends that people at average risk start getting screenings at age 45. “Average risk” means you don’t have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease.

“A lot of the misconceptions that I hear from patients center around not knowing when or why to get a colonoscopy,” said Dr. Whitfield. “The screening age is 45 and has been for some time, but it still seems like a lot of folks think that they should start screening at 50. Another common misconception is when someone states that they don’t need a colonoscopy unless they have symptoms. Colorectal cancer doesn’t typically present with symptoms until it’s advanced, and the whole point of screening is to catch it or when it’s most treatable, or prevent it entirely!”

Myth 5: Colonoscopies are difficult procedures

A colonoscopy isn’t a long or painful procedure. The procedure itself only takes about 30 to 60 minutes. Most of its notoriety comes from the preparation beforehand, which requires you to clear your bowels. Most doctors instruct you to switch to low-fiber foods a few days before your colonoscopy and adopt a clear-liquid diet the day before. You’ll also need to take laxatives before the procedure. Follow the preparation instructions carefully so your doctor doesn’t miss any findings.

“There is the ongoing misconception that a colonoscopy is painful or unpleasant,” said Dr. Whitfield. “Granted, the prep isn’t a lot of fun, but the procedure is done under sedation and does not cause any discomfort afterward.”

Myth 6: Colonoscopies are the only way to screen for colorectal cancer

A colonoscopy is one way to screen for colorectal cancer, and it’s the only option that allows for removal of precancerous polyps. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force also recommends these approaches for early detection:

  • Computed tomography (CT) colonography
  • Fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy
  • High-sensitivity guaiac fecal occult blood test (HSgFOBT)
  • Stool DNA-FIT

Talk to your doctor about the best approach for you.

Myth 7: Colorectal cancer is fatal

As with all types of cancer, the earlier colorectal cancer is detected, the better the outcome. When colorectal cancer is detected early, it can be cured. All stages of colorectal cancer are treatable. More than 90% of patients with localized cancer — meaning the cancer hasn’t spread outside of the colon or rectum — are still alive five years after diagnosis. One-third of colorectal cancers are diagnosed at this stage.

Myth 8: Your choices don’t impact your risk of colorectal cancer

There’s no singular, proven way to prevent colorectal cancer, but you can reduce your risk. Lifestyle modifications such as limiting processed meats, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can lower your risk of colorectal cancer.

What should you be aware of regarding colorectal cancer?

When we asked Dr. Whitfield what he wanted people to know about colorectal cancer, he said, “That it is largely preventable!” “Colorectal cancer is quite the simply the only cancer for which we have a screening tool that is both diagnostic and therapeutic. By getting a colonoscopy, not only can we detect a colon cancer before it becomes symptomatic and advanced, but we can also identify and remove precancerous polyps before they have a chance to turn into cancer.  There is no other cancer for which we have that ability.”

Screening for better health

“We have well established guidelines for colorectal cancer screening,” Dr. Whitfield said. “If you’re average risk, meaning no family history, then you should start screening at age 45.  If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, then you should start earlier.  The recommended age will vary, but a good rule of thumb is to start screening no later than age 40, or 10 years earlier than the age of diagnosis of your affected relative (if diagnosed before age 50).”

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, but it’s important to be aware of colorectal cancer year-round. Adopting a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of getting colorectal cancer. Understanding your genetic predisposition and risk, and getting regular screenings can improve the chances of finding colorectal cancer early. In its early stages, colorectal cancer is most treatable and the chance of a cure is greatest. If you’re concerned about your colorectal cancer risk, talk to your doctor.