Exploring facts & myths about colorectal cancer

April 17, 2024


As healthcare professionals who have performed thousands of colonoscopies for colorectal cancer screening over the years, we have heard it all at Alabama Colon and Rectal Institute. This includes significant misinformation and myths about colorectal cancer. But it’s very important to understand the facts regarding risk factors, screening, family history, related procedures, and more. 

Some fears may be attributed to these myths, such as the fear of having a colonoscopy. But facing these issues and clearing up misconceptions could actually save your life.

Basic facts about colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer starts in the colon or the rectum. These cancers may be referred to as just colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where they start. Colon cancer and rectal cancer are often grouped together because they have many features in common.

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the United States. For 2020, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be 104,610 new cases of colon cancer and 43,340 new cases of rectal cancer.

The rate of people being diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer has dropped each year since the mid-1980s. This is great news that we attribute to more people getting screened and changing their lifestyle-related risk factors. 

Common myths about colorectal cancer

Using our own extensive experience and information from the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, let’s clear up some myths and misconceptions.

Myth: You will only get colon cancer if you have a family history of the disease

The truth is that about 75% of all new cases of colon cancer occur in individuals with no known risk factors other than being age 50 or older. A family history just means you may need to start your screening earlier or have screenings more frequently.

Myth: Colonoscopies aren’t necessary until you are 50 years old or older

While this may have been true for many people in the past, there have been recent developments regarding when people should start getting screened due to rising colorectal cancer cases among people under the age of 50. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has recommended colorectal cancer screenings start at ages 45 to 49, pointing to evidence that colorectal cancer incidence in 45-year-old adults now approaches that of people who were age 50 when screening guidance was first issued in the 1990s. We often bring people in starting around age 45, and there is a good chance this will be adopted as a new standard. 

Myth: You cannot prevent colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer is preventable in many cases. A low-fat diet that is high in vegetables and fruits, plus regular exercise, may reduce your risk of developing the disease. Since most of these cancers develop from non-cancerous polyps (growths on the lining of the colon and rectum), screening methods can detect and remove polyps before they become cancerous. Again, this is why regular colonoscopies are crucial.

Myth: There is no cure

Colorectal cancer is curable when detected early. Approximately 90% of patients with colorectal cancer that is confined to the colon or rectum can be cured. The problem is that only 37% of all cases are diagnosed at this stage. The remaining 63% don’t come to the doctor until the disease has spread beyond the wall of the colon or rectum or to other parts of the body. It may be more difficult to completely cure the disease at this point.

Myth: The prep-work for colonoscopies is terrible

We use a low-volume prep for colonoscopies, which typically means drinking a half-gallon of a liquid of the patient’s choice. This is most commonly clear Gatorade, but any clear liquid usually works. Drinking liquid to clean out your colon means that you will need to be near the restroom for several hours. This is actually the worst part for many patients. During this time, the most common complaints we hear about are nausea or vomiting. These issues can often be alleviated by slowing down the pace at which you are drinking your prep liquid.

Remember that this preparation is extremely important as it allows us to see the lining of the intestines clearly. Inadequate preparation can lead to missed lesions or a need to repeat the procedure.

Myth: Colonoscopies hurt

People are worried that they’ll experience pain or have bleeding and other post-procedure effects. There is nothing about a colonoscopy that will hurt. The majority of our patients elect to have IV sedation, which means you are asleep during the procedure.

Myth: Having a polyp means surgery will be necessary

A polyp is a precancerous lesion that can progress to colon or rectal cancer. If detected and removed before this progression, cancer can be prevented. Most benign polyps are completely treated by removal during a colonoscopy. It is true that if cancer is found within the polyp, you may need surgery to remove that part of the colon. Even if you need surgery, we can perform many procedures using laparoscopic or minimally invasive approaches, which minimize recovery time, pain, and have many other benefits. 

If you need to schedule a colonoscopy, contact Alabama Colon & Rectal Institute today

Alabama Colon & Rectal Institute specializes in treating diseases of the colon, rectum, and anus. We are the experts in performing colonoscopies, transrectal ultrasounds, and stapled hemorrhoidectomies. Our three doctors are known regionally for their expertise in these areas. Visit our website for more information, give us a call to make an appointment at (205) 458-5000, or email us at [email protected].  

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