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How to Talk About Colorectal Cancer Screening with Your Family

January 13, 2023

Family laughing together

Do you know if your family has a history of colorectal cancer? While family history is only one of the risk factors, understanding if anyone in your family has had colorectal cancer or history of adenomatous polyps is important, so you begin colorectal cancer screening early enough. And that you encourage family members to get screened, too. 

As many as one-third of people with colorectal cancer have a family history of the disease (Source: American Cancer Society). “It’s good to be aware who in your family has or has had colorectal cancer and when it was detected,” says Shweta Joshi, M.D., a board certified and fellowship trained gastroenterologist with Riverside Gastroenterology Specialists. “Talking about cancer screening can be uncomfortable, but it can also save your life.” And if you have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, sharing that information with your family is crucial so they can share the information with their health care provider and begin screening at the right time.

When colorectal cancer is detected and treated early, it is one of the most survivable types of cancer. Learn more about colorectal cancer screening and detection

What does it mean if a family member has had colorectal cancer?

Researchers have found colorectal cancer runs in families. “If you have a first-degree relative (mother, father, sister, brother) you should begin screening 10 years prior to when your first-degree relative was diagnosed or at age 40 whatever comes earlier.,” says Dr. Joshi. “If your health care provider determines that you’re at an increased risk for developing colorectal cancer due to your family history or other risk factors, they may also recommend you undergo genetic testing and counseling”. 

With screening, colorectal cancer is one of the most easily detected and preventable types of cancer.  

You have options for screening test methods.  Screening is important no matter which method you choose because colorectal cancer may not produce any signs or symptoms in its early stages.  Colonoscopy is the gold standard for screening because it is the only test that allows your doctor to examine the entire length of your colon to look for cancer or polyps.  If a polyp is found, your doctor can remove it before it has a chance to become cancerous.  For those at average risk, colonoscopies that have normal results are repeated every 10 years.  For those at higher risk, your health care provider will advise you on the timeline to be screened again, as you may need to have screening more frequently.

Stool-based DNA Test (Cologuard) looks for cells in the stool that contain abnormal sections of DNA.  If you results come back abnormal, you will need to have a colonoscopy.  Screening with Stool DNA Tests are performed every three years.

Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) looks for hidden blood in the stool, which can be an early sign on polyps or colorectal cancer.  If your results come back abnormal, you will need to have a colonoscopy.  Screening with FIT tests are performed every year.

What are other risk factors for colorectal cancer?

Even beyond a family history, risk factors increase your potential for developing a specific health condition. Some risk factors can control, while other risk factors you can’t. The risk factors for colorectal cancer include:

  • If you are African American.  African Americans have the highest incidence and mortality rates of colorectal cancer
  • You have a genetic syndrome such as Lynch Syndrome or Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
  • You have been diagnosed with an Inflammatory Bowel Disease like Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis
  • Personal history of polyps
  • You have type 2 diabetes
  • Being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent
  • Being a smoker.
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Consuming moderate to high amounts of alcohol
  • Eating a diet high in red meat and processed foods
  • Not getting regular physical activity

How can you and your family reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer?

Thankfully, your family can take steps to help reduce their risk for developing colorectal cancer. In addition to encouraging them to have colorectal cancer screening  (beginning them at the right time and staying on schedule for repeat screenings), use family get-togethers to help everyone reduce their risk. Examples include:

  • Explore new recipes, or update traditional meals to include whole grains, fruits and vegetables for a healthy, balanced diet 
  • Find a sport everyone can enjoy to encourage regular exercise 
  • If members of your family smoke, form family teams and rewards so you can quit smoking together.  Need help quitting smoking?   
  • Get in a family walk after family dinners and gatherings to help maintain a healthy body weight
  • Include non-alcoholic options at gatherings to reduce alcohol intake

When the whole family commits to a healthier lifestyle, they can support each other to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

Share the importance of colorectal cancer screening with your friends.

Talk with your friends to encourage them to get screened too. Because colorectal cancer is rising rapidly among younger adults, experts have lowered the recommended age to begin colorectal cancer screenings for those at average risk to 45 years of age, or earlier if for those at higher risk. 

Colorectal cancer screening is a simple way to prevent or find colorectal cancer when it is earlier to treat.  Get screened for you, your family, and your friends!

Schedule a colonoscopy today. Taking charge of your health today can lead to a much brighter tomorrow!

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