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By: Son T. Do, M.D.


Globally, colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in men and the second in women. Over 1.2 million new cases and over 600,000 deaths estimated to have occurred in 2008. In general, the cancer is much more common in men than women. In the United States, colorectal cancer is amongst the most common and most deadly cancers for many Asian American, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI).

Who gets colorectal cancer?

The average person has about a 5% chance of getting colorectal cancer, and over 85% of these cases are in people who have no family history of the cancer. Your risk of getting colorectal cancer gets higher as you get older. The cancer is rare for people younger than 40 years old but between 40 and 50, the cancer becomes much more common. There are several risk factors for colorectal cancer which you can control. People who smoke, don’t get enough exercise, are overweight or obese, eat red meat and processed meat, have a low fiber diet, and drink large amounts of alcohol, are more likely to get colorectal cancer.

Rates of colorectal cancer are already high in many Asian countries, but when people from these countries move to the United States and their diet changes to include more fat and red meat, the rates of cancer become even higher. Members of AANHPI communities in the United States are at a serious risk of colorectal cancer.

How is the cancer detected?

If you are 50 or older and no one in your family has had colorectal cancer, you should ask your doctor about getting a colonoscopy every 5-10 years. These tests will help prevent the cancer by finding it in earlier stages. During a colonoscopy doctors can remove growths called polyps which can become cancer later. Another way to screen for colorectal cancer is to test feces for blood and other chemicals once a year. A virtual colonoscopy uses dyes and images to detect cancer, is another alternative to getting a colonoscopy but is less effective and cannot remove polyps.

How is it treated?

Once diagnosed, most colorectal cancers can be removed. Some cases of colorectal cancer can spread to other organs if they are not found quick enough. These cancers require powerful chemotherapy drugs and are more deadly.

There is hope.
In the US, there has been a sizeable improvement in treating colorectal cancer over the last 2 decades, with death rates and numbers of cases decreasing by 1% each year. This improvement comes mostly from increased screening rates. Unfortunately, screening for colorectal cancer in AANHPI communities is rare, with Korean and Vietnamese communities having the lowest screening rates.

What should I do?

The best way to avoid colorectal cancer is to get screened. Screening could save lives by finding and preventing up to 80% of colorectal cancer cases. Talk to your doctor during your next visit about getting checked regularly for colorectal cancer.

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