Colorectal Cancer Awareness and Risk

Approximately 60% of colorectal cancer patients are over age 70, peaking between ages 70 and 75.

Helpful Highlights

  • The rate of people being diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer each year has dropped overall since the mid-1980s, mainly because more people are getting screened and changing their lifestyle-related risk factors.

  • Overall, the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 25 for women.

  • In the U.S., when the numbers for men and women are combined, colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths (third leading cause in men and fourth leading cause in women).

  • About 90% of colorectal cancers and deaths are thought to be preventable.

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What is it?

Colo-: Colon

-Rectal: Rectum

Most colorectal cancers are adenocarcinomas. These cancers start in cells that make mucus to lubricate the inside of the colon and rectum.

Cancers Typically Occur in the Sigmoid or Descending Colon and the Rectum

Colorectal cancer by the numbers

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S.

An estimated 1,880,725 people were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2020.

The 5-year relative survival rate for colorectal cancer is 65% and climbing.

The American Cancer Society estimates about 106,590 new cases of colon cancer (54,210 in men and 52,380 in women) and about 46,220 new cases of rectal cancer (27,330 in men and 18,890 in women) in 2024. It's expected to cause about 53,010 deaths.

The number of colorectal cancer cases in the U.S. has been decreasing since the mid-1980s. During the 2000s, incidence rates dropped by 3% to 4% each year. This was due to increased screening in adults aged 50 and older. From 2011 to 2019, incidence rates continued to decrease by 1% annually.

That said, incidence rates have been rising by 1% to 2% each year in younger people since the mid-1990s. Colorectal cancer is now estimated to be the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. among adults aged 30 to 39.

Is my loved one at high risk for colorectal cancer?

NON-MODIFIABLE RISK FACTORS. These are risk factors that cannot be changed.

  • Age 50 or older (although the incidence of those younger than 50 is rising and the reason is unknown).

  • A personal history of colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer.

  • A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD; note this is different from irritable bowel syndrome or IBS).

  • A family history of adenomatous polyps or colorectal cancer.

  • An inherited syndrome or condition linked to colorectal issues.

  • Eastern European Jewish, American Indian, Alaskan Native, or African American descent.

  • Male (men have a slightly higher risk than women).

MODIFIABLE RISK FACTORS. These are lifestyle-related risk factors that can and should be changed.

  • Lack of regular physical activity

  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables

  • A diet low in fiber

  • A diet high in fat

  • A diet consisting of a lot of processed foods (especially processed meats)

  • Overweight and obese

  • Alcohol use

  • Tobacco use

  • Diabetes*

*Diabetes is considered a modifiable risk factor because it can be "changed" in the sense that it can be properly managed to reduce the risk of complications.

If your loved one has a history of colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer, consider discussing a daily low-dose aspirin and calcium supplement with their provider.

Colorectal cancer screenings

The likely reasons that the death rate from colorectal cancer has been dropping in older adults for several decades are:

  1. Colorectal polyps are now being found more often by screening, and removed before they can develop into cancers.

  2. Screening also results in many colorectal cancers being found earlier, when they are likely to be easier to treat.

  3. Treatments for colorectal cancer have improved over the last few decades, with recent studies suggesting that even people over age 75 may respond well to treatment.

The good news is that about 7 in 10 U.S. adults are up-to-date with colorectal cancer screening.

All insurance plans cover colorectal cancer screenings. Talk to your loved one's provider about starting and maintaining regular screenings, if they haven't already.

About 90 percent of colorectal cancers and deaths are thought to be preventable.

RESOURCES

American Cancer Society - Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors

American Cancer Society - Key Statistics for Colorectal Cancer

Cancer.net - Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors & Prevention

Cancer.net - Colorectal Cancer Statistics

CDC

Millan, M., Merino, S., Caro, A., Feliu, F., Escuder, J., & Francesch, T. (2015). Treatment of colorectal cancer in the elderly. World Journal of Gastrointestinal Oncology, 7(10), 204-220. DOI

National Cancer Institute

National Cancer Institute: Surveillance, Epidemiology & End Results Program

University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Health

No content in this app, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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