We understand that, through a large part of her life, her gynecologist may be the only physician a woman sees every year. While our focus is your reproductive health, we want you to be well-informed about other health issues you may face now or in the future. Colorectal cancer is one of these risks.
Despite the fact that these cancers are highly preventable and very treatable in earlier stages, they are the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. for both men and women. Factors that increase your risk of colon cancer include:
- Personal and family medical history
- Lifestyle factors
You can take actions to reduce these risks.
Your risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer increases with age. More than 90% of colorectal cancers are found in people age 50 or older. The most important preventive action you can take is to get a colonoscopy beginning at age 50 and thereafter on the schedule your doctor recommends based on your risk factors.
If you have a history of inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis) or a history of colon polyps your risk of colorectal cancer is higher. Keep your physician informed of your medical history. Certain hereditary conditions also increase your risk of colorectal cancer. Know your family history as far as possible, and communicate it to your physician. In some families a genetic condition known as Lynch Syndrome gives individuals a much higher than normal chance of developing colorectal cancer.
WHAT IS LYNCH SYNDROME?
Persons with Lynch Syndrome have a mutation (a permanent change) in a gene usually responsible for repairing mistakes in a cell’s genetic material. When these damaged cells divide, their abnormal growth may result in a cancer. These individuals have an 80% chance of developing colon cancer. Most colon cancers do not occur in people with Lynch Syndrome. Only about 2 to 7% of colon cancers occur in persons with the defective gene. But if you have the gene, your first degree relatives (parents, children, siblings) have about a 50% risk of also having Lynch Syndrome.
The gene mutation that makes colon cancer more likely also affects other organs. Women with Lynch have a 60% chance of developing endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterine lining).
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHETHER YOU HAVE LYNCH SYNDROME?
Genetic testing (blood test) is available to identify the gene mutation. If you have had an early onset colorectal or endometrial cancer (before age 50), if a close family member has been diagnosed with Lynch Syndrome, or if two or more of your close relatives have had Lynch Syndrome cancers, you should discuss genetic testing with your doctor.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO KNOW WHETHER YOU HAVE THIS GENETIC CONDITION?
Those who have Lynch Syndrome will be screened earlier and more frequently for colorectal, endometrial, and other cancers associated with Lynch Syndrome. The testing will lower their chances of developing or dying from these cancers. Besides colorectal and endometrial, other cancers associated with Lynch Syndrome include stomach, ovarian, the upper urinary system, biliary tract, small bowel, pancreas, brain, and a certain type of skin cancer. If you are diagnosed with Lynch Syndrome you can also make close family members aware of their higher risk.
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO?
Remember that most colorectal cancers are not associated with Lynch Syndrome. The best way to lower your risk is to follow your doctor’s recommendation for colonoscopy testing. Women should keep in mind that smoking, obesity, a diet low in fiber, fruits, and vegetables, and little physical activity also increase colon cancer risk.
During this Colon Cancer Awareness Month commit yourself to one or more lifestyle changes to lower your risk. The entire family can take a step toward better fitness while supporting colon cancer research by participating in Birmingham’s Rumpshaker 5k Run or 1 mile Bunny Run on Easter Saturday.
Above all, keep us informed of changes in your medical or family history.