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Finding Colon-Rectal Cancer Early

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Thanks to improvements in prevention, early detection, and treatment, more than a million people in the U.S. count themselves as survivors of colon or rectum cancer (also called colorectal cancer).

Colorectal cancer is a disease in which cells in the colon or rectum become abnormal and divide without control, forming a mass called a tumor. (The colon and rectum are parts of the body’s digestive system, which takes up nutrients from food and water, and stores solid waste until it passes out of the body.)

Most people with early colon or rectal cancer have no symptoms of the disease. Symptoms usually appear only with more advanced disease. From the time the first abnormal cells start to grow into polyps, it usually takes about 10 to 15 years for them to develop into colorectal cancer. This is why getting the recommended screening tests before any symptoms develop is so important.

Regular colorectal cancer screening or testing is one of the most powerful weapons for preventing colorectal cancer. This is because some polyps, or growths, can be found and removed before they have the chance to turn into cancer. Screening is the process of looking for cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease. In addition, treatment for colorectal cancer has improved over the last several years. Several tests are used to screen for colorectal cancer. Ask your doctor which tests are available where you live and which options might be right for you.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), fewer African Americans are dying from colorectal cancer than in previous years. However, African Americans still have the highest death rate of any other racial or ethnic group for most cancers, including colorectal cancer. An estimated 7,020 deaths from colorec¬tal cancer are expected to occur among African Americans in 2012. Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in both African American men and women.

The causes of these inequalities are complex and are thought to reflect social and economic disparities more than biologic dif¬ferences associated with race. These include inequities in work, wealth, income, education, housing and overall standard of liv¬ing, as well as barriers to high-quality cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment services.

Chances of colon cancer increase with age. Diabetes, obesity, smoking and heavy use of alcohol also increases the risk. Screenings should start at age 50 and continue every 10 years after that as long as results are normal. You should start earlier at the age of 40 if you have a family history.

The Census Bureau reports almost 25 percent of African Americans live in poverty and 20 percent are uninsured. Both of those things can significantly decrease the chances someone will receive colon cancer screening -- a major factor in colorectal cancer prevention.

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