Practical resources to help family caregivers in the midst of caring for someone

Colorectal cancer risks, symptoms, and screening

As a family caregiver, the state of your own health is just as important as the health of the person in your care. That’s why Elizz wants to tell you about colorectal cancer (aka bowel cancer) and how you can reduce your risk (or that of the person in your care) of developing it.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, “Colorectal cancer is the 2nd most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers). It is the 2nd leading cause of death from cancer in men and the 3rd leading cause of death from cancer in women in Canada.”

What is Colorectal Cancer?

When cells in the body start to grow, multiply, or behave abnormally, tumours can develop. Sometimes these tumours are benign (not cancerous) but sometimes they can become malignant (cancer).

When a malignant tumour grows in the colon or rectum it is called ‘colorectal cancer’ or ‘bowel cancer’. The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age, with the majority of cases being in men and women over the age of 50.

Colorectal cancer may occur due to family history in conditions such as Hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) or Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).

Reducing the Risk of Developing Colorectal Cancer

Anyone can get cancer, but there are things that you can do for yourself and the person in your care to reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, including colorectal cancer:

  • Eat a balanced diet that includes:
    • Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – fibre is very important for colon health
    • Water – helps avoid constipation
  • Limit a diet high in:
    • Fat and calories
    • Red and processed meats
    • Sugar
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Stop smoking – if you smoke there are programs that are available to help you quit
  • Avoid obesity – excess fat, particularly around the midsection (waistline), has been shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer
  • Increase physical activity (always speak to a health care professional before embarking on any new or increased physical exercise especially if you have any underlying medical conditions)
  • Hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women

Watch For Early Colorectal Cancer Symptoms

It can sometimes feel a little uncomfortable talking about our bowels and bowel movements, but it is really important that you have a conversation with your health care provider if you are noticing something unusual or concerning.

The following are signs and symptoms that may indicate the presence of colorectal cancer:

  • Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
  • Weakness, fatigue, or shortness of breath
  • Persistent abdominal bloating, cramps, or pain
  • Change in bowel function, including constipation or diarrhea
  • Changes in the colour or consistency of the stool, including more narrow stools
  • Unexpected weight loss

It is important to note that the presence of these symptoms does not automatically mean that you have colorectal cancer.

There are other conditions that may be responsible for the symptoms you are experiencing, so it is essential that you arrange an assessment by your doctor. For more information visit The Colorectal Association of Canada’s page entitled What is Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal Cancer Screening

Screening is the best way to catch colorectal cancer early, before symptoms even start. There are a few different tests that can be done to screen for colorectal cancer.

Speak to your health care provider to discuss which is the most appropriate for you based on your history and medical condition(s). Usually colorectal cancer screening is offered for people over the age of 50; however, depending on your medical and family history, your health care provider may suggest that screening start sooner.

Screening programs for colorectal cancer may vary by province. The Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada provides helpful information about colorectal cancer screening tests on their website.


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