Feb 28, 2023 Ask the Doctor, March 2023

Colorectal Cancer: What You Need to Know

Screening Can Prevent Cancer or Detect It at a Treatable Early Stage.

Malini Patel, MDColorectal cancer is among the most common cancers in both men and women, according to the American Cancer Society. In recent decades, the overall rate at which people are diagnosed with this potentially deadly disease has dropped due partly to increased screening. Yet, colorectal cancer is also becoming more common among young adults. “Knowledge can be your first line of defense against colorectal cancer,” says Malini M. Patel, MD, Director of Medical Oncology at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton. “Understanding colorectal cancer risks and how to reduce them can save lives.” Dr. Patel highlights key points everyone should know.

What is colorectal cancer?

It’s a cancer that starts anywhere along the colon—that is, the large intestine—or rectum, both of which are in the lower portion of the digestive system. These cancers often start as precancerous, abnormal growths called polyps that over time can transform to colorectal cancer. Why is detecting colorectal cancer early so significant? If you’re diagnosed with colorectal cancer in its early stages, you have a high chance of being cured. Colonoscopy screening can not only detect polyps but also remove them during the same procedure and prevent them from becoming cancer in the future. So screening improves your odds of surviving cancer or avoiding it altogether.

At what age should people start colorectal screening?

Men and women at average risk should begin colorectal screening at age 45. Earlier testing may be appropriate for patients who have a family member with colorectal cancer, known familial disposition to cancer, or who have other risk factors such as inflammatory bowel disease.

What are options for screening?

The standard screening test for colorectal cancer is colonoscopy, in which a flexible, tube with a camera is used to view the colon and rectum. It requires a laxative preparation and is performed under sedation. Results are about 95 percent accurate. A screening colonoscopy is usually repeated every 10 years. Alternatives to colonoscopy include minimally invasive CT colonography, sometimes called virtual colonoscopy, and stool-based exams in which you provide a stool sample at home and mail it to a lab. Home-based tests aren’t as accurate as a colonoscopy and must be performed once a year or every few years. If any of these tests suggest colorectal cancer, you’ll still need a colonoscopy, which is the preferred test. If a colonoscopy detects cancer, a wide range of treatment options are available.

RWJBarnabas Health and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, in partnership with Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey—the state’s only NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center—provide close-to-home access to the most advanced treatment options.

Call 844.CANCERNJ or visit www.rwjbh.org.