Colorectal cancer, a malignancy that begins in the colon or rectum, represents a significant health burden globally. 

    The colon and the rectum – both organs of the large intestine – are responsible for processing and eliminating wastes from our body. Thereby, they become an integral part of our digestive system.  Colorectal cancer starts developing as benign polyps form on the inner wall of either of these organs. These polyps gradually become cancerous over the years. 

    The National Cancer Institute has listed colorectal cancer among the top 5 most common cancer types prevalent in the USA. Besides the NCI, the American Cancer Society has also emphasized the growing risks of colorectal cancer in the country.  Its most recent statistics reveal that in 2024, the US can witness an estimated 106,590 new colon and 46,220 rectal cancer cases. 

    The risk of colorectal cancer in people younger than 55 years of age has continued to grow by 1-2% each year in the last three decades. Today, we’re here to investigate the link between the growing threat of colorectal cancer and PFAS exposure.

    Investigating the Link Between Colorectal Cancer and PFAS Exposure

    The potential connection between colorectal cancer and PFAS exposure has drawn attention from the scientific and public health communities in recent years. 

    PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals widely used in a number of everyday products, including water-repellent fabrics, firefighting foams, and non-stick cookware. 

    The concern with PFAS arises from their ability to remain in the human body for extended periods and potentially disrupt normal biological processes. As you can gather, these could easily contribute to the development of colorectal cancer.

    Understanding how PFAS might be linked to colorectal cancer involves exploring several biological mechanisms. PFAS tends to interfere with the endocrine system, which regulates hormones crucial for various bodily functions, including growth and metabolism. Disruptions in hormonal balance can influence cancer risk by affecting cell growth and repair mechanisms.

    Another critical aspect is inflammation, a biological response to harmful stimuli, which, when chronic, can contribute to cancer progression. PFAS exposure is closely linked to increased levels of inflammation in your body. This could potentially affect your gastrointestinal tract, thereby contributing to the risk of colorectal cancer.

    Jie Zheng, who led the Yale study focused on the ability of PFAS chemicals to migrate cancer cellstalked about this link. Zheng mentioned that the relationship between PFAS and colorectal carcinoma (CRC) hasn’t been addressed in any study so far. 

    But he also pointed out that firefighters had a higher vulnerability rate to this type of cancer than other people.  And since PFAS is a significant occupational hazard to firefighters, it reveals a close connection between the two.

    Zheng also discussed how 80% of the CRC cases could be traced back to environmental exposure, which further strengthened his point. 

    Coming back to the subject of firefighters – TorHoerman Law points out that AFFF firefighting foam, and PFAS by association, may be linked to numerous cancers. 

    Many firefighters have filed a firefighter foam cancer lawsuit against the AFFF manufacturers for not warning them of its risks. Anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer following exposure to the AFFF foam is eligible to join the lawsuit. 

    Other Risk Factors That Cause Colorectal Cancer

    Colorectal cancer is a multifactorial disease. Its development can be influenced by a combination of various risk factors besides PFAS exposure. Now that we’ve addressed the former, let’s take a deeper look at the other risk factors that can contribute to this life-altering disease:

    Genetic Factors 

    First up, we have genetic factors. Do you know what can dramatically increase your chances of developing colorectal cancer?  A family history of this disease.

    It’s not just colorectal cancer or polyps that can be inherited. A number of other inherited conditions, such as Lynch Syndrome and  Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP), can also influence it. 

    Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) is a rare but serious hereditary condition that causes the development of hundreds of polyps in the colon and rectum. These polyps, though initially benign, have a high potential to become cancerous if not properly managed and treated.

    Lynch Syndrome is a more common genetic disorder known to contribute to the risk of colorectal cancer, often at a younger age than the general population. Unlike FAP, this syndrome increases the likelihood that any polyps that do develop will become malignant.

    Lifestyle and Dietary Factors 

    In comparison to genetic and occupational hazard factors we’ve explored so far, your lifestyle and diet are aspects you can control. In other words, these modifiable risk factors can be worked on to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer in anyone. 

    A physically active lifestyle that involves regular workouts of any kind is known to keep colorectal cancer – alongside many other diseases – at bay. It also prevents obesity, which is another major contributor to colorectal cancer. Lifestyle choices like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption also make you more vulnerable to the risk of this disease.

    In terms of diet, one with low fiber can increase your chances of suffering from colorectal cancer. The Cleveland Clinic also highlights the link between ultra-processed foods and the risk of colorectal cancer. It references a study that revealed men who consumed more processed food had a 29% higher possibility of colorectal cancer diagnosis. 

    Amanda Bode, RD, explains that more and more studies highlight the importance of healthy eating for lowering the risk of colorectal cancer today. This is especially true for those with a family history of the disease.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    Is colorectal cancer curable? 

    Yes, it is. When localized to one’s bowel, colorectal cancer is found to be highly treatable, with surgery being its primary treatment procedure. Approximately 50% of the patients are cured of the cancer following the surgery. However, if the cancer returns post-surgery, it’s often known to become the ultimate cause of death.

    What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer? 

    Colorectal cancer doesn’t necessarily cause any noticeable symptoms in patients, especially in its initial stages. However, if you do have symptoms pointing to it, they should include diarrhea, prolonged abdominal cramps, bloody stool, changing bowel habits, and unprecedented weight loss.

    Does colorectal cancer spread fast?

    No. Contrary to popular belief, colorectal cancer is typically slow-growing. It begins as a small polyp that becomes malignant over several years, often without showing any specific symptom. Even after the cancer has developed, it might remain undiscovered for years. This is why doctors recommend regular screenings for these conditions.

    The bottom line, as the threat of colorectal cancer is steadily growing across the country, it’s important to recognize its primary causes and risk factors. While many of these contributors are out of our control – such as genetic and environmental factors – we must focus on the ones we can control. This involves making our lifestyle more active, cutting back on ultra-processed foods, and adding more fiber to our diet. 

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