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Screenings and prevention are the focus of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the US.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

Dr. Kimberly Kolkhorst is a gastroenterologist at Essentia Health in Fargo. She says this month she’s focusing on getting the word out about the preventable nature of colon cancer. She says there are a number of options for screenings – including testing of stool samples. But she says the “gold standard” of colorectal cancer screenings is the colonoscopy. Last year, the age at which those screenings begin was lowered from 50 to 45. Kolkhorst says that’s because colon cancer is showing up in younger and younger patients.

"We know for a fact that if we find colorectal cancer earlier, the outcomes are significantly improved, if we can find it at state one or stage two, vs stage three or stage four where it's already spread. The unfortunate thing is that we're seeing in the data, these young patients - because no one is thinking of colon cancer, they don't think they have cancer - as a result, they're delaying the onset of seeing the first doctor."

Kolkhorst says if symptoms persist for a few weeks, a patient should be seen as soon as possible. Symptoms can include changes in bowel habits, blood in stool, persistent abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss. Kolkhorst says in some cases, cancer can even be removed during the screening.

"I have often found colon cancer I am able to remove endoscopically - that's the best case scenario. If I can find a colon mass I'm able to remove using my scope, and now the patient doesn't even have any wounds or scars on the outside of their body, and if we catch it early enough and it hasn't even gone through the lining of the colon - that's the best case scenario. Most of the time, I can cure patients of colon cancer just from having the colonoscopy early enough."

Kolkhorst says by the year 2030, colorectal cancer is expected to be the leading cause of cancer deaths for people under the age of 50. She says a lot of research is being aimed at determining the causes for why, but it is known that alcohol and tobacco use, as well as diets high in processed meats or low in fiber can increase risk for colon cancer.