Despite being largely preventable, colorectal cancer is the third most common in the U.S., and Kentucky ranks first in the nation for incidence.

Most colorectal cancer is preventable; here’s what you need to know

Dr. Jitesh Patel

Written by Dr. Jitesh Patel, colorectal surgeon at the UK Markey Cancer Center.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the U.S. In Kentucky, the disease is particularly bad: Our state ranks first in the nation for colorectal cancer incidence and seventh in deaths. More than 2,500 new cases of the disease are diagnosed each year in Kentucky, and colorectal cancer takes the lives of more than 800 Kentuckians annually. The good news is colorectal cancer is a largely preventable disease.

Cause of colorectal cancer

The disease originates when healthy cells from the innermost layer of the colon or rectum change and grow uncontrollably, forming abnormal tissue growths called polyps. These growths are usually benign, but they can eventually become cancerous if they aren’t removed in time.

Risk factors and symptoms

Age, genetics and lifestyle are all possible risk factors for colorectal cancer. The disease typically affects men and women age 50 and older, and people are more likely to have the disease if others in their family have had it. Additional risk factors include obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, high alcohol use, and a diet high in red or processed meat and low in calcium, fruits and vegetables.

Colorectal cancer signs are often ignored because the disease may start with few or no noticeable symptoms. Some observable symptoms include:

  • Change in bowel habits.
  • Recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort.
  • Rectal bleeding.
  • Weakness or fatigue.
  • Unintentional weight loss.

How it can be prevented

Regular screening tests, including colonoscopies, are recommended for everyone starting at the age of 50 as well as for people at a younger age who are at high risk of developing the disease. African-Americans should be screened starting at age 45. Colonoscopies can actually prevent colorectal cancer by finding the precancerous lesions/polyps, allowing your doctor to remove them before they become malignant and cause serious harm.

In addition to screenings, changing some of your lifestyle habits can help you lower your risk of colorectal cancer. Proactive lifestyle changes include exercising regularly, opting for a diet rich in vitamins and calcium, quitting smoking, and lowering alcohol consumption.

Treating colorectal cancer

Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. Surgery to remove the cancer is usually the first and only required treatment in early stages. However, in more advanced stages, when the disease has spread into nearby tissue and organs, chemotherapy before and/or after the surgery and targeted therapy drugs may also be necessary.

Colorectal cancer is about 90-percent treatable when discovered in its earliest stages. While a colonoscopy may not be a fun experience, it could very well save your life.


Next steps:

  • Learn more about Markey’s gastrointestinal cancer team, which provides comprehensive, personalized care for cancers including colorectal cancer.
  • With other life events keeping her busy, Claudia Hall almost skipped a routine screening for colorectal cancer. She decided to keep the appointment, and it’s a decision that saved her life. Read Claudia’s story.