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March - Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

Beverly Miller

Beverly Miller, MHA, MBA, Acting Area Director

Indian Health Service California Area Office


March is designated as Colorectal Cancer Awareness month.  Colorectal Cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women in the United States.  Although American Indian/Alaska Native people have the lowest incidence of Colorectal Cancer, they do have higher death rates than some of the other races/ethnicities because they are often diagnosed at later stages of disease.

Colorectal Cancer is cancer that starts in the colon or the rectum.  Colorectal cancers usually start as a polyp, which is a growth that starts in the lining of the colon or rectum, although not all polyps will become cancer.  Screening for colorectal cancer is the best way to find the disease early and begin treatment.  If the cancer is caught early, before symptoms have begun, treatment is more likely to be successful.  Screening can also help prevent some colorectal cancers because it allows doctors to identify polyps and remove them before they can become cancer. 

The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that colorectal cancer screening begin at age 50 and continue through age 75.  People at a higher risk for colorectal cancer, such as those with a family history, should be screened earlier.  Screening tests for colorectal cancer include:

  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) and fecal immunochemical test (FIT):  Stool samples are checked for blood which may be a sign that a polyp or cancer is present.  This test should be performed ever year; or
  • Sigmoidoscopy:  A flexible tube is put into the rectum and lower colon to check for polyps and cancer.  This test should be done every five years along with an FOBT every three years; or
  • Colonoscopy: A longer, flexible tube is used to look at the entire colon and rectum.  Tissue samples can be collected or polyps may be removed during the procedure.  This test should be done every 10 years.

Risk factors for colorectal cancer include:

  • Family or personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis
  • A genetic syndrome such as Lynch syndrome or Familial Polyposis (FAP)
  • Lifestyle factors, including:
    • Overweight/obese
    • Alcohol consumption
    • Tobacco Use
    • Lack of physical activity
    • Low-fiber and high-fat diet
    • Low fruit and vegetable intake

Colorectal Cancer does not always cause symptoms at first.  If symptoms are present, they may include:

  • Blood in or on stool
  • Stomach pains or cramps that don’t go away
  • Weight loss for no reason

If you are over age 50 and have not been screened for colorectal cancer, visit your doctor to request a screening.  Prevention and early detection are key.  If you are younger than 50 and have symptoms or a family or personal history, also talk to your doctor about screening or diagnostic tests.

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