Although breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women, many women don't know that early detection is just as important in preventing the second most common cancer — colorectal cancer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Unfortunately, 60 percent of people in the U.S. are not receiving recommended screenings.
"We recommend that all women receive colorectal cancer screenings at age 50," says Dr. Christine Eros, a physician with Sharp Community Medical Group. "Screenings include a flexible sigmoidoscopy every six years, a colonoscopy every 10 years, and yearly fecal blood or immunochemical tests, which are generally part of your annual physical."
Most colorectal cancer starts in the form of a polyp, or small growth on the lining of the bowels. Though a polyp is by definition precancerous, they can be benign and are routinely removed during a colonoscopy to prevent them from becoming malignant.
Of course, just as important as detection is prevention. In some cases, colorectal cancer may have a genetic link.
"Women with a family history of the disease should be particularly cautious," explains Dr. Eros. "Patients who suffer from ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease may also be more susceptible to colorectal cancer. But the most important contributors to the disease — and the most easily corrected — are our generally poor dietary and exercise habits."
Studies suggest that your risk of colorectal cancer can be lowered by taking these steps:
- Eating a well-balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains (at least 30 grams of fiber each day)
- Adding probiotics and antioxidants to your daily intake
- Drinking alcohol in moderation (women should have no more than one alcoholic drink per day)
- Quitting smoking
- Exercising at least 30 minutes per day
- Keeping a healthy weight, at a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or lower
"It's never too late to start good health habits," says Dr. Eros, "but the best thing women can do to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer is to begin having regular screenings at age 50."
However, don't wait to talk to your doctor if you have a family history or exhibit symptoms like blood in your stool, persistent abdominal pain or unexplained weight loss.
"If your medical history suggests you may be at risk, or if you are having symptoms, you should be screened for colorectal cancer immediately, regardless of your age."