There are many factors that can contribute to a person’s chance of developing colorectal cancer. Race and ethnicity, age, personal health history, and lifestyle are common factors, but family history can also play a major role in your cancer risk.
In fact, familial cancer is present in 20-30% of all colorectal cancers. The problem is that people don’t talk about family history and colon cancer in the same way as heart disease or diabetes. Yet knowing and acting on your family history is an important way to protect your health.
People with a history of colorectal cancer in a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) are at increased risk. The risk is even higher if that relative was diagnosed with cancer when they were younger than age 50, or if more than one family member is affected.
With colorectal cancer, family history can also change the recommendations for when and how you should be screened. While everyone should begin routine screening by age 50, individuals with a family history of colon cancer or polyps should actually begin colon screening at age 40, or 10 years prior to the youngest diagnosis of colon cancer in the family.
Regardless of risk, a full colon exam with colonoscopy is considered the gold standard for colon screening and is regarded as a tried and true method of detection and prevention with minimal complications. It is the only colon cancer screening test that finds polyps and can remove them (to prevent a cancer progression) during a single examination.
And don’t forget your own responsibility for family history. If you have advanced adenomatous polyps detected, it is important for you to tell your immediate family members because it may affect when and how they need to be screened.
At your next family dinner, holiday gathering, or even during a phone call to just stay connected, be sure to ask your loved ones about your family history and if polyps or colorectal cancer is something that has affected them or any relatives. Getting screened early enough might just save your life.