Apr 16th 2021

The Third Cancer Women Should Think About: Colorectal Cancer

The American Cancer Society predicts that 104,270 new cases of colon cancer and 45,230 cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2021—and many of the people receiving a diagnosis of colorectal cancer will be women.

Yet, colorectal cancer is not be on the radar of many women, especially younger patients.

Women may be more likely to be concerned with breast cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancer, and perhaps lung cancer, which takes second place on the list of most commonly diagnosed cancers in women. But colorectal cancer follows closely behind—it is the third-leading cause of cancer death among women.

How Often Colorectal Cancer Affects Women

The lifetime risk of colorectal cancer is only slightly higher for men (4.3%) than for women (4%), according to the American Cancer Society. As many as  70,000 cases of colorectal cancer may be diagnosed in women this year.

Healthcare providers can help female patients understand the overall incidence of colorectal cancer in women, as well as their own personal risk factors. That can be done by discussing the importance of screening, as well as the genetic testing options for people with a strong family history of colorectal cancer.

Such screening and testing is important because many of colorectal cancer deaths are unnecessary. Colorectal cancer can be cured in 9 out of 10 people when discovered in its early stages, according to the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons (ASCRS).

Colon and Rectal Cancer Risk Factors

Some colorectal cancer risk factors you can control, and others you can't.

Risk factors that can be reduced by lifestyle changes include:

  • Diet
  • Obesity or being overweight
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use

Healthcare providers can help patients reduce their lifetime risk of colorectal cancer by helping them chart strategies for addressing such modifiable risk factors. Prioritizing their health, eating a healthy diet, and getting exercise on a regular basis may be helpful changes for many women.

Risk factors that are beyond the control of patients include:

  • Age (your risk increases as you get older)
  • A personal history or family history of colorectal polyps
  • A family history of colorectal cancer
  • A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease

Certain genetic conditions and genetic mutations also seem to be linked to an increased risk for colorectal cancer.

Women who have risk factors that are beyond their control—like a family history of colorectal cancer or a personal history of ovarian or uterine cancer—may be good candidates for screening at an earlier age.

Discussing the patient's personal and family medical history can contribute to identifying a patient's individual risk and help ascertain whether genetic testing may be appropriate.

The Importance of Colorectal Cancer Screening

Early detection and screening are critical to reducing colorectal cancer deaths. The five-year relative survival rate for people with a localized case of colorectal cancer is 90%, but once the colorectal cancer spreads beyond the area, the survival rate drops to 70%—and plummets to 14% once the cancer reaches distant organs and lymph nodes. Currently, only about 39% of colorectal cancers are diagnosed early on.

As a healthcare provider, you can help ensure that women are familiar with the importance of catching colorectal cancer early through screening, just like they know about the importance of mammograms to screen for early signs of breast cancer.

Here are a few talking points:

Regular screening is critical and should be done early. Regular screening for colorectal cancer should start at age 45 for women, according to the ASCRS. The ASCRS used to recommend starting at age 50 but has lowered the age recommendation based on more recent data. As a healthcare provider, you can remind patients to make and keep colorectal screening appointments when they hit the appropriate age.

Screening and testing is less arduous than you think. Today, there are multiple tests (in addition to a colonoscopy) than can help screen patients and they are not as burdensome as patients may think. Screening is fast and easy.

Early intervention is minimally invasive. Often, minimally invasive procedures can be used to remove polyps or even small cancers in the colon.

Screening can be done safely, even in pandemic times.COVID-19 disrupted care for many people, and many patients delayed or skipped preventive care, including cancer screenings.

Some patients may still be due or overdue for a colonoscopy or other type of screening test.
Encouraging patients to not put off colorectal cancer screening is as important now as ever.
If your patients have safety concerns about coming into the office, you can discuss the precautions that your facility and staff are taking—and reassure them that getting screened for colorectal cancer is the right thing to do.