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Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month Observance Focuses on Screening, Increasing Public Knowledge


By Bernard S. Little

WRNMMC Command Communications


Observed during March, Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month seeks to increase the public’s knowledge about the disease, and to encourage people to get screened.

“Colorectal cancer represents the third most common form of cancer and claims more than 50,000 lives yearly in the U.S.  As common as colorectal cancer is, it is also in many cases preventable through adherence to screening recommendations,” explained Navy Capt. (Dr.) James Duncan, chief of Colon & Rectal Surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is important to raise awareness of this common disorder and to inform the public of the benefits of screening and reducing risk,” he added.

Colorectal cancer, often called colon cancer, occurs in the colon or rectum. “Symptoms of colorectal cancer include blood in the stool, a change in bowel habits, anemia (low red blood cell counts), unexplained or unintentional weight loss and abdominal pain. It is important to also recognize that in many cases, colorectal cancer may present in the absence of any symptoms.”

Screening for average-risk individuals should begin at age 50, Duncan explained. “For those at higher risk -- people with a first-degree relative with colorectal cancer, a personal history of the disease or colon polyps, a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease – screening should begin earlier depending on a number of factors,” the surgeon stated.

Colorectal cancer affects men and women of all racial and ethnic groups, making it the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women the United States. Therefore, “everyone with a colon and rectum should be considered for colorectal screening based on their personal and/or family history,” Duncan emphasized.

Screening can find precancerous polyps—abnormal growths in the colon or rectum—so that they can be removed before turning into cancer. Screening also helps find colorectal cancer at an early stage, when treatment often leads to a cure. About nine out of every 10 people whose colorectal cancers are found early and treated appropriately are still alive five years later, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Duncan said the “gold standard” screening test for colorectal cancer remains the optical colonoscopy. “This safe procedure involves visualizing the lining of the entire colon and rectum with a colonoscope, a flexible instrument guided by a surgeon or gastroenterologist to look for polyps, cancer, or other disease in the large intestine. Other tests that are acceptable means for colorectal cancer screening include testing the stool for occult blood or performing a specialized CT scan, sometimes referred to as a ‘virtual colonoscopy’ or more properly, CT colonography,” he explained.

According to the CDC, research continues to explore if dietary changes can reduce colorectal cancer risk. Duncan stated that eating a healthy diet high in fiber and low in fat, exercising, avoiding smoking, and moderating alcohol intake are all healthy lifestyle habits to minimize one's risk of getting colorectal cancer.

“Paramount among the steps people can take is adhering to screening guidelines and getting a colonoscopy at age 50 or sooner if they belong in a higher-risk group,” he furthered. 

If a person is diagnosed with colorectal cancer, Duncan explained how the person would need to be evaluated with additional tests including blood work and a CT scan to better understand the status of the cancer and whether it has spread, or metastasized, beyond the colon or rectum to other organs such as the liver or lungs.

“In most cases where the cancer is confined to the colon or rectum, surgery is considered as the most effective option for treatment.  Oftentimes there may be a role for chemotherapy depending on whether the tumor has spread to the surrounding lymph nodes or other factors,” Duncan explained. 

For more information about colorectal cancer, visit the CDC website at https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal.