As far as prevention goes, running is pretty good medicine. Study after study shows runners are at less likely to die from all causes, including cardiovascular disease, and cancer. But just because you’re logging the minutes and the miles isn’t a guarantee you’ll enjoy a lifetime of optimal health. Granted, it sure ups your odds, but that doesn’t mean you should skip out on routine screenings that can go even further toward that whole goal of long term good health.
Yes, that includes screening for colorectal cancer and that dreaded colonoscopy. More on that in a minute…
Philip Sanford was in high school when his mom was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer. She was just 41. As a grown-up, a runner, and an advocate, Sanford’s picked up the cause his mother was unable to continue. He’s been to Capitol Hill to lobby for better outcomes. He’s also the local director for Charlotte’s colon cancer awareness run, the “Get Your Rear in Gear” 5k.
“There’s a reluctance to getting screened,” Sanford told John Carter on WBTV. There are still gaps in insurance as to who can be screened at what age – and that’s one of the biggest things we do at the local level, is to get people in front of a doctor and get a colonoscopy or a non-invasive FIT test.”
Bottom line, no pun intended, testing for colorectal cancers saves lives. Judy Caswell is proof of that. Before her diagnosis, she ignored the signals her body was trying to share. She waited nearly four years before she finally went to the doctor. Thankfully, it wasn’t too late.
“If your body feels ‘off,’ cramping, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, bleeding… DO NOT attribute it to just running or working out too hard,” warns Caswell. “Colorectal cancer shows up in young people! Get it checked out!”
Yes, there are factors that raise your risk for colorectal cancers, like family history, or certain digestive disorders, like Crohn’s Disease. Obesity, diets high in red meat and processed foods and lower in fruits and vegetables, and smoking and drinking are also contributors.
African Americans are also disproportionately affected by colorectal cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, they’re about 20% more likely to get colorectal cancer, and about 40% more likely to die from it than most other racial or ethnic groups.
But to Caswell’s point; age, lifestyle, and activity level don’t automatically exclude you from the risk group.
Colorectal cancer warning signs
See your health care provider if you experience any of these symptoms:
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or more frequent bowel movements.
- Rectal bleeding or blood in stool.
- Narrow stool.
- A feeling that you still need to “go” even after emptying your bowels, or a feeling you need to go but nothing passes.
- Persistent abdominal pain.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- Weakness or fatigue.
Source: Novant Health
The good news and bad news about screening
The overall mortality rate for colorectal cancer continues to drop. Through awareness, events, messaging, and people’s openness to talking about their own diagnosis; more people are being screened. Technology continues to improve that catches and removes smaller, potentially precancerous polyps earlier. And when colorectal cancers are caught earlier, the survival rate is near 90%.*
The bad news is only about 4 out of 10 colorectal cancers are found at this early stage. And, let’s be brutally honest here. Most people are still reluctant to jump right into a procedure that involves such a personal space—even if it could save their lives. And everyone has heard the horror stories of colonoscopy prep.
But take heart. Mercifully, this part of the process has improved, too.
And what about running and my risk for colorectal cancer?
The web is chock-full of articles, studies, and citations that confirm what your doctor, your gym teacher, and your mom, have always said: exercise is just good plain good for you.
And you don’t have to be an Olympian to reap the cancer-fighting benefits of regular running. “Any amount of running,” as at least one study concluded, “even just once a week, is better than no running**”
But Sanford is quick to remind us, that doesn’t mean runners are bulletproof.
“The main thing I wish runners knew is that colorectal cancer is what I’d call an equal opportunity cancer,” he added. “You can be young, in great shape, and still get it. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor and encourage a referral to a gastroenterologist.”
*Source: American Cancer Society
** Pedisic Z, Shrestha N, Kovalchik S, Stamatakis E, Liangruenrom N, Grgic J, Titze S, Biddle SJ, Bauman AE, Oja P. Is running associated with a lower risk of all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality, and is the more the better? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2020 Aug;54(15):898-905. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-100493. Epub 2019 Nov 4. PMID: 31685526.