Advance with MUSC Health

Colorectal Cancer: How a Primary Care Doctor Can Help with Digestive Health

March 07, 2022
Caitlin Kessler, D.O.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so what better time to talk about digestive health and the importance of primary care in cancer screening and prevention?

Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most common cancer worldwide in men and women and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Although some patients can be asymptomatic, many CRC patients present with symptoms like constipation and diarrhea in addition to cramp-like stomach pain, unexplained weight loss, and blood-streaked stool. The key to keeping your digestive health in check is to, first and foremost, be open with and regularly see a primary care physician.

Your primary care doctor plays a vital role in the early detection and prevention of cancers, including CRC. Your dedicated doctor will be able to assess any cancer symptoms you may be having clinically, and can address preventive factors like lifestyle changes. They'll also ask the right questions to discover your digestive health habits, make recommendations on managing them, and refer you to a gastroenterologist, if necessary, who can diagnose and treat you.

Who should get screened

Adults — both men and women — ages 45 to 75 should get screened for colorectal cancer. Individuals outside that age group should speak with a doctor about their risk factors and other considerations to determine if a screening is right for them.

Risk factors

The older you get, the greater your chances of getting colorectal cancer. Your risk rises due to factors like genetics (a family history of CRC, for example) and a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease.

Reducing risk

Other lifestyle factors can increase your risk of CRC, like obesity, smoking, and lack of exercise, but the good news is that your primary care physician can help put you on a healthier path. Talk to your doctor if you need guidance with being more physically active, adding more fruits and vegetables into your diet, consuming less fat and processed foods, including meats, losing weight, getting alcohol consumption under control, and quitting smoking.

What to ask your primary care doctor

If you're in the recommended screening age bracket, experiencing symptoms, or suspect you fall into one or more risk factors categories, here are some potential concerns you can bring up with your doctor:

  • Since there are several different kinds of screening tests, ask for recommendations on which one to get and why it's the best one for you.
  • What to do beforehand: Sometimes screening preparations — like switching up your diet or changing your usual medication — are necessary, so inquire with your doctor on exactly how you should prepare.
  • What does a test involve? Your doctor can mentally prepare you for what to expect.
  • When to expect the results: Waiting on results can be nerve-racking, but your primary care physician can help.

A healthier path

You can take the steps right now to good digestive health. Making lifestyle changes is one of the best preventive measures you can take to reduce cancer risk. Consider making one or a few of these changes today to improve your gut health:

  • Drink lots of water
  • Follow a consistent eating schedule
  • Limit red meat and add more fruits and vegetables, as well as probiotics, to your diet
  • Consume more fiber. Both soluble and insoluble fiber make for a happy gut!

If you're experiencing colorectal cancer symptoms or simply want to improve your digestive health, schedule an appointment with a primary care doctor today!