March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Here’s what you need to know.

Colorectal cancers are the third most common cancer in the U.S. (excluding skin cancers).
Colon and rectal cancers, often referred to together as “colorectal cancer,” share some important similarities — both affect parts of the large intestine, both frequently present as adenocarcinomas (a type of cancer that begins in cells that produce fluids such as mucus), and both start as growths called polyps.

More than 135,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with colorectal cancers last year, representing 8 percent of all new cancer cases. They are the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S.

Colorectal cancer cases are on the rise in young people.
The majority of colorectal cancers are diagnosed in people older than age 50, the age most experts recommend people with average risk begin screening.

However, last year, American Cancer Society (ACS) researchers reported a disturbing increase in the number of cases diagnosed in younger people — namely, that people born in 1990 have double the risk of developing colon cancer and quadruple the risk of developing rectal cancer than people born in 1950.

While the incidence rates for these diseases have been dropping overall — about 2.7 percent annually over the past decade, according to the National Cancer Institute — the ACS study revealed that this decline is largely fueled by older people. When they broke the data down, they found that incidence rates have actually been increasing to the tune of 1 to 2 percent each year for colon cancer in people ages 20 to 39 and 3 percent per year for rectal cancer in adults 20 to 29.

It’s not entirely clear why this increase is occurring, but it’s likely linked in part to obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise. To lower your risk, experts recommend:

  • Regularly exercising
  • Eating a balanced diet (more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and less red meat and processed meats)
  • Avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol consumption

In many cases, symptoms aren’t apparent in the earliest stages of the disease.
People younger than age 55 are 58 percent more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage cancer, in part because “cancer is typically not on the radar of young adults and their providers,” the authors of the ACS study said at the time.

Early detection is critical, and may prevent the disease entirely if precancerous polyps are found and removed. People should be vigilant about symptoms and discuss any concerns with their physician. Signs include:

  • A prolonged change in bowel habits
  • Cramping or abdominal pain
  • Rectal bleeding, blood in the stool or dark stools
  • A feeling that you have to go that is not alleviated by a bowel movement
  • Weakness, fatigue or unintended weight loss

Experts recommend talking to your doctor if you have a family history of colorectal cancers. Due to a higher incidence of developing colorectal cancers, the many experts also recommend African Americans begin screening early at 45.

Looking for more information? Here’s a list of resources:
National Cancer Institute — Colorectal Cancers
American Cancer Society
Stand Up To Cancer
American Gastroenterological Association
American College of Gastroenterology

An ongoing Van Andel Research Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team-supported phase II trial is investigating a potential new therapy for colorectal cancer. Learn more here and here.


National Cancer Institute SEER
National Cancer Institute — Colorectal Cancers
American Cancer Society
Stand Up To Cancer
American Gastroenterological Association
American College of Gastroenterology