It's March - thank goodness. A few days of warmer weather and we begin thinking of spring, new growth, getting outdoors and perhaps shedding a layer of clothes or two. For those of you 50 and older, I'd also like you to think inside a bit, specifically inside your body and in particular, your colon.

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), among cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum) is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Every year, about 140,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer and more than 50,000 people die from it. The exact cause of colorectal cancer is not known. But there are several risk factors for the disease:

n History of colon cancer: A prior case of colon cancer increases the risk of a second colon cancer, especially if the first cancer was diagnosed before the age of 60.

n Lifestyle: Smoking and alcohol consumption of more than four drinks per week increases the risk of developing colon cancer.

n Family history: The closer you are genetically to a relative (mother/father) with colorectal cancer, the greater your risk for the disease. That risk increases if more than one close relative has colon cancer.

n Diet: Diet also contributes to the risk of colorectal cancer, although the cause-and-effect relationship is uncertain. People whose diets are high in fruits and vegetables seem to have a lower risk and a number of studies have implicated animal fat and protein as promoting colorectal cancer, although researchers are wary about drawing any definite conclusions. Some studies show that frequent consumption of red meat, (rich in saturated fat and protein) increases risk, while others find no connection. Some scientists suspect fat as the main culprit, while others suggest protein. Still others contend that fats and protein cooked at high temperatures are to blame for producing many potentially carcinogenic substances linked to colorectal cancer.

n Co-diseases: Colorectal cancer is strongly associated with certain other diseases. Those people considered at high risk include anyone with a personal or family history of colon polyps or colon cancer, inflammatory disease of the colon such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, and cancers of the pancreas, breast, ovaries or uterus.

Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer:

n Blood in or on the stool (bowel movement).

n Stomach pain, aches or cramps that do not go away.

n Losing weight and you don't know why.

These symptoms could be caused by something other than cancer. Precancerous polyps and colorectal cancer don't always cause symptoms, especially at first. Conversely, you could have polyps or colorectal cancer and not know it, which is why getting screened is so important.

Reducing your risk:

The risk of getting colorectal cancer increases with age. More than 90 percent of cases occur in people who are 50 years old or older. Colorectal cancer screening saves lives but many people are not being screened according to national guidelines. So 50-somethings... listen up.

Colorectal cancer screening helps find precancerous polyps so they can be removed before they turn cancerous. In this way, colorectal cancer can be prevented. This is typically done through high-sensitivity fecal occult blood test (FOBT), stool test or a colonoscopy.

Screening tests also can find colorectal cancer early, when treatment often leads to a cure.

In addition, eating healthy, increasing the intensity and amount of exercise, avoiding obesity and weight gain and not drinking too much alcohol are strongly advised. You can also lower your colorectal cancer risk by not smoking. Here's to a great spring for all of you, from the inside out.

Dr. Bryan Hughes is with Oak Grove Medical Clinic and can be reached at 816-690-6566.