By Deirdre Wheat, M.D., M.P.H., Medical Director, Quality, Disease & Case Management, Independent Health

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, an observance dedicated to encouraging colorectal cancer prevention and promoting the importance of early detection. Every year, about 140,000 Americans get colorectal cancer, and more than 50,000 people die of it. It is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States.

Colorectal cancer may start out as little growths known as polyps. Over time, some polyps can turn into cancer. Depending on where the cancer is located, colorectal cancer may be referred to as colon cancer or rectal cancer.

Various risk factors

Your risk of getting colorectal cancer increases with age. About 90% of cases occur in people who are age 50 or older. In addition, the incidence of colorectal cancer is higher among black men and women compared to people of other races. Other risk factors include having inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, and having a personal or family history of colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer.

Since lifestyle can also contribute to colorectal cancer risk, here are six actions you can take to help lower your chances of getting this disease:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Be physically active.
  • Eat healthy foods, including vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
  • Avoid eating a lot of red meat or processed meats.
  • If you smoke, get help to quit.
  • If you drink alcohol, limit how much you drink.

What are the symptoms?

Precancerous polyps and colorectal cancer may not cause any symptoms until they progress. See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Pains, aches, cramps in your belly
  • Blood in your stool or very dark stools
  • A change in your bowel habits, such as frequency or consistency of the stools
  • A feeling that your bowels are not emptying completely
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Screening saves lives

Screening tests can find or prevent colon and rectal cancer before symptoms appear and help reduce colorectal cancer mortality rates. This includes stool tests like FIT, that can be done at home, as well as direct visualization tests like colonoscopy that may be performed in an ambulatory surgery center.

For those at average risk of colorectal cancer, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening should begin at age 50 and continue until age 75. The decision to screen beyond age 75 is an individual one based on many factors, in consultation with your doctor. It may be appropriate to begin screening earlier than age 50 depending on your circumstances. The frequency of screening depends on your personal risk factors and the type of screening test used. Talk with your doctor about your personal risk for colorectal cancer, which type of screening test might be best for you, and when to start and stop screening.

For more information about colorectal cancer, visit the American Cancer Society at