By Annette Pinder

Three years ago, colon cancer made the headlines when famous actor Chadwick Boseman lost his battle to the disease at age 43. Boseman concealed his diagnosis at the age of 39, and continued acting until his death. Shortly thereafter, the American Cancer Society and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that individuals of average risk undergo colorectal screening beginning at age 45, rather than 50.

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women, and the second most common cause of cancer deaths for men and women combined. It is anticipated that 52,550 people will lose their lives to the disease in 2023. This March, during National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, the physicians at Great Lakes Cancer Care Collaborative (GLCCC) and Gastroenterology Associates, LLP are emphasizing the importance of colorectal screening in saving lives.

Options for screening include taking a sensitive test yearly that looks for signs of cancer in the stool, or undergoing an exam that looks at the colon and rectum (a visual exam). Colonoscopy is a visual exam, and is typically performed every 10 years. Other visual tests are CT colonography and flexible sigmoidoscopy, which should be repeated every 5 years. Anyone who receives an abnormal result with a stool-based test, such as CT colonography or flexible sigmoidoscopy must be followed up with a colonoscopy.

Individuals considered to be at an average risk for developing colorectal cancer are those who do not have a personal history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps; a family history of colorectal cancer, a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease); a hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome or Lynch syndrome; or a personal history of getting radiation to the abdomen or pelvic area to treat a prior cancer.

Individuals who do have these characteristics in their personal or family history are classified as being at a higher risk for colorectal cancer and should check with their doctors, as they may need to begin screening prior to age 45. This is very important because one of the biggest problems with colon cancer is that tumors can grow slowly over the course of several years without any symptoms, and those who have the disease typically notice symptoms at later stages. Symptoms also vary depending on the tumor’s location, the length of time it has been growing, and a person’s unique bowel functions.

GLCCC’s gastroenterology specialists say the following symptoms should serve as a call to action:

  • Changes in bowel function, such as alternating between diarrhea and constipation
  • Increased frequency of bowel movements or a feeling of incomplete bowel movements
  • Stool that is narrower than normal (like a pencil) or differently shaped, or blood in the stool
  • Intestinal discomfort, including cramping, pain, gas, and/or bloating that is not relieved by bowel movements
  • Bleeding from the rectum during a bowel movement without other anal symptoms, such as itching, pain, or lumps
  • Stool is streaked with blood, or is dark, tarry, or black

Be aware of advanced symptoms, such as abdominal or back pain; the sensation of a mass; obstructive rectal problems; decreased appetite and unintended weight loss; intense fatigue and abnormally low energy; swelling in the legs; or bone pain.

Factors that increase a person’s risk of colorectal cancer include genetics, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, poor diet, alcohol, and certain medical conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. African Americans carry the highest risk of developing and dying from colorectal cancer. Ashkenazi Jews are also at a heightened risk due to a specific genetic mutation.

If you are experiencing unusual symptoms, call your doctor now. Don’t wait! Your life may depend on it. Visit Great Lakes Cancer Care Collaborative at to learn more and find a specialist, or call 716-884-3000. Additionally, Gastroenterology Associates is offering extended office hours to get your questions answered and schedule your screening colonoscopy on March 15 and 22 from 5-7 pm. See locations at or call 716-626-5250.