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Colorectal Cancer: What You Need to Know

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By: Nina M. Taggart, M.D.
March 9, 2012

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and nowhere should that be more important than in northeastern Pennsylvania.

While colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosis in the U.S., it’s the leading cancer diagnosis in northeastern Pennsylvania.  In fact, the colorectal cancer rate in our area is 20 percent higher than national and state averages.  In Luzerne County alone, it’s 24 percent higher.

The good news is that regular screenings and early intervention can catch colorectal cancer in its initial stages, when it’s easiest to treat.  But many of us fail to get the screenings that are recommended by physicians and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

So what does everyone need to know about colorectal cancer?  Colorectal cancer develops in the large intestine or rectum and affects men and women of all racial groups, most often striking people age 50 or older.

The risk of developing colorectal cancer also increases for people with inflammatory bowel disease, certain genetic disorders and those with a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps.  Remember, it’s always best to consult with your physician, who is in the best position to discuss your health risks.

Although certain risk factors like those mentioned above are beyond a person’s control, other risk factors can be controlled.

Lifestyle factors that can contribute to colorectal cancer include a lack of physical activity, being overweight or obese, alcohol consumption, tobacco use, a high-fat and low-fiber diet and low fruit and vegetable intake.  So do what you can to limit these factors and ask for your physician’s help if you need additional resources to support making healthy lifestyle changes.

Perhaps the most critical step people can take in the fight against colorectal cancer is getting regular screenings.  The CDC reports that as many as 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths can be prevented through regular screening tests.  Screenings can reveal precancerous polyps, which are abnormal growths in the colon or rectum.  When detected, the polyps can be removed before they become cancerous.

Screenings can also identify cancer in its earlier stages, which can greatly improve treatment outcomes.  According to the CDC, about 90 percent of people whose colorectal cancer is treated early are still alive five years later.

Because we recognize the importance of prevention, many insurers like Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania (BCNEPA) encourage appropriate screenings and healthy lifestyle choices.  At BCNEPA, for example, our Blue Health Solutions program is available to all covered members to help them quit smoking, manage their weight or simply guide them on the path to a healthier lifestyle.

Although genetics and family medical history are beyond your control, you can make choices that help reduce your chances for colorectal cancer.  By choosing healthy behaviors and following the screening guidelines recommended by your physician, you can improve your chances of living a cancer-free life and help bring down our region’s startling colorectal cancer statistics.

Nina M. Taggart, M.A., M.D., M.B.A., F.A.A.O., is the Vice President, Clinical Operations at Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.