Colorectal cancer:

are you at risk?

Colorectal cancer is a common cancer that can be screened in order to treat it quickly. Early treatment increases the chances of recovery.

What areas of the body are affected?

You have probably already heard the term “large intestine”. It is the terminal part of the digestive tract. It consists of a long tube divided into segments, the last of which are the colon, rectum and the anal canal. The primary function of the large intestine is to temporarily store food waste following the digestive process, and to evacuate it through stools.

Colorectal cancer affects the terminal part of the large intestine, more specifically the colon or the rectum.

Is colorectal cancer common?

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada. Moreover, it is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer. It is estimated that 1 out of 13 men, and 1 out of 16 women will have colorectal cancer in the course of their lifetime.

This type of cancer occurs more frequently in individuals over the age of 50, and the risk of being affected by it increases with age.

What are the risk factors of colorectal cancer?

Some individuals have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. Here are some examples of known risk factors:

  • a family history of colorectal cancer
  • inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
  • intestinal or rectal polyps
  • overconsumption of alcohol
  • smoking
  • physical inactivity
  • obesity
  • diet high in red meat or processed meats
  • low-fibre diet
  • etc.

It is interesting to note that lifestyle changes can contribute to lowering the risk of colorectal cancer.

Another important fact: a person can have colorectal cancer even in the absence of all risk factors!

How to determine if you have colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer is often “silent” in its first stages, and can progress and manifest itself through various signs and symptoms. Here are some examples:

  • stomach aches
  • bloating and flatulence
  • changes in the amount, frequency or appearance of stools
  • presence of blood in the stools
  • black or coloured stools
  • fatigue or weakness
  • weight loss
  • anemia
  • etc.

Colorectal cancer can be diagnosed using different methods, including the most common one: the colonoscopy. This procedure consists of inserting a tubular instrument equipped with a camera in the rectum that provides images of the inside of the colon to detect any anomalies, such as polyps or abnormal lesions. 

During a colonoscopy, it is possible to do a biopsy, in other words, to remove tissue from the intestinal or rectal lining for future analysis.

Can colorectal cancer be screened in the absence of signs and symptoms?

There are various screening tests for colorectal cancer. Screening is intended to detect colorectal cancer early in order to start treatment quickly. In Quebec, after the age of 50, it is recommended to pass a test that involves the analysis of stool every two years. This test aims to detect the presence of blood in the stool. This observation alone is not enough to make a diagnosis, but it warrants further investigation using another method: a colonoscopy.

For individuals who are particularly at risk, screening methods must be considered before the age of 50. The doctor determines the screening method to be used and the appropriate frequency, according to the person’s specific situation.

Ask your doctor to provide information on screening measures, and ask if you should pass certain tests in view of your personal risk assessment.

How does colorectal cancer evolve?

Colorectal cancer usually progresses slowly and rather predictably. A person can be affected by it for years without knowing it, especially if he/she has no symptoms.

The chances of recovery are increased when it is diagnosed in the early stages, which is why early detection is so important. The treatment is more effective if the disease has not spread outside the colon.

Do curative treatments exist?

The treatment of colorectal cancer can involve various measures, including the following:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy
  • radiation therapy

The treatment plan depends on several factors: age, medical history and health, type, location, stage and extent of the disease, whether or not there are metastases, etc. It calls upon the expertise of a specialized care team in the management of this type of cancer.

If you have any health-related questions, speak to your pharmacist, who is always there to help you!

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