“Colorectal cancer kills more people than any other cancer except lung cancer,” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.” Colorectal cancer is cancer of the colon or rectum and is the second leading cause of cancer related deaths in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that approximately 146,000 new cases were diagnosed in 2009. Of these, there were over 49,000 who died from the disease.

On a more positive note, colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. In fact, the CDC states that one-third of colorectal deaths could have been avoided if caught earlier with a screening test. “Screening tests can detect colorectal cancer at its earliest stages, when it is most treatable,” said Laura Seeff, M.D., medical director of CDC’s colorectal cancer screening program.

March has been designated as National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month to encourage more Americans to learn how to reduce their risk by implementing preventive measures such as screenings and lifestyle changes.

Regular screening tests can detect pre-cancerous polyps found on the inner wall of the colon or rectum. Often these are found to be non-malignant and are removed before they turn cancerous. If cancer cells are found, early treatment means a higher chance for survival. In fact, the CDS studies show that 90% beat the cancer when detected at the early stage.

As we get older, the risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with the majority of cases diagnosed with patients age 50 and older, therefore regular screenings are recommended beginning at age 50 except for higher risk individuals.

At higher risk for colorectal cancer:

• People who use tobacco, are obese or are sedentary.

• People with a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or benign (not cancerous) colorectal polyps.

• People with a personal or family history of inflammatory bowel disease, such as long standing ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, and

• People with a family history of inherited colorectal cancer

The Colorectal Cancer Facts for People with Medicare brochure lists the following: If you have any of the following symptoms, discuss them with your doctor. Only he or she can determine if cancer or other conditions are causing the symptoms. The symptoms are:

• Blood in or on the stool,

• A change in bowel habits,

• Stools that are narrower than usual,

• General stomach discomfort,

• Frequent gas pains, and

• Unexplained weight loss.

To reduce the risk, the CDC recommends:

• Be physically active and exercise regularly.

• Maintain a healthy weight.

• Eat a high-fiber diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains.

• Consume calcium-rich foods like low-fat or skim milk.

• Limit red meat consumption and avoid processed meats.

• Don’t smoke.

• Don’t drink alcohol excessively.

Again, the good news is that colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. The CDC states, “Several different screening tests can be used to find polyps or colorectal cancer. Each can be used alone, or sometimes in combination with each other. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends colorectal cancer screening for men and women aged 50—75 using high-sensitivity fecal occult blood testing (FOBT), sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy. Talk to your doctor about which test or tests are right for you. The decision to be screened after age 75 should be made on an individual basis. If you are older than 75, ask your doctor if you should be screened.

Mary Garza Cummings is a freelance writer. To contact her, email askseniorfocus@aol.com