Colorectal cancer (cancer that starts in the colon or rectum) is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institutes of Health estimates that 50,630 people nationwide died from colorectal cancer in 2018.
While these statistics are scary, the good news is that colorectal cancer is highly treatable and beatable. Lowering your risk involves early detection, taking preventive measures like eating healthy and maintaining a healthy weight and being aware of common misconceptions.
Let’s debunk five of the most common myths about colorectal cancer.
Myth 1: If I have colorectal cancer, I will have symptoms like bleeding, cramping or dark stools.
Colorectal cancer can be a silent disease, according to gastroenterologists at Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center. In fact, many cases of colorectal cancer show no symptoms at all. It may takes years for signs like bleeding and abnormal bowel movements to develop, at which point the cancer is more advanced and may be more difficult to treat. This is why the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends regular screening starting at age 45, or earlier if you have a family history.
Myth 2: Colorectal cancer is always fatal.
When colon cancer is caught early—when it is still in stage 1—the ACS has found that the five-year survival rate is 92 percent. However, the ACS also reports that when the cancer is caught late—when it has progressed to stage 4—the five-year survival rate is only 12 percent.
Myth 3: A colonoscopy is the only way to screen for colon cancer.
Colonoscopies are the most accurate way to screen for the disease, but there are other lifesaving tests that can detect cancer or cancerous polyps. Under new recommendations from the U.S. Preventative Services Taskforce, you can work with your doctor to find alternate screening options based on your age and risk factors. For example, certain at-home stool tests or a CT scan may be an option for those who cannot undergo anesthesia or bowel preparation.
Myth 4: Polyps unequivocally mean cancer.
A polyp is a tissue mass that typically forms on the lining of the colon or rectum. While some polyps are harmless (hyperplastic polyps), about two-thirds can be precancerous (adenomas). If these precancerous growths are not removed, about 5 percent of them will turn into cancer within seven to 10 years, according to Harvard Medical School.
Since nearly all colorectal cancers start out as adenomatous polyps, doctors recommend removing all polyps found during a colonoscopy.
Myth 5: I’m healthy. I don’t need to be screened.
Most new cases of colorectal cancer occur in people ages 50 or older with no other known risk factors for the disease. The National Colorectal Roundtable estimates that if 80 percent of people aged 50 to 75 were screened for colorectal cancer, 230,000 lives could be saved. Even if you’re otherwise healthy, getting tested is essential.
Remember to talk to your doctor about your family history of cancer and discuss which colorectal cancer screening option is right for you. Don’t wait for your doctor to bring it up. Be proactive and take control of your health.