March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month
Five Steps to Colon Health
By: George Babcock, M.D., General Surgeon
Colon cancer is cancer of the large intestine, the lower part of the digestive system. It is the third most common cancer in the United States, and – caught early – it’s also one of the most curable. Most cases begin silently as a polyp that causes no or few symptoms. Five simple steps can help protect your health and reduce your likelihood for developing colon cancer.
1. Get tested
All adults should begin routine colon cancer screenings at age 50. In 2008, the American Cancer Society (ACS) issued new screening guidelines to stress prevention as the primary goal and steer providers and patients toward those tests with the highest potential to prevent cancer.
ACS recommends procedures that actually examine the interior of the colon because they can not only detect cancer, but also prevent it by identifying polyps or growths that can potentially become cancerous. These procedures include a flexible sigmoidoscopy (every five years); a colonoscopy (every 10 years); a double contrast barium enema (every five years); or a CT colonography or virtual colonoscopy (every five years). Polyps found during flexible sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy can be removed immediately, simply and painlessly.
Other testing options that look for evidence of cancer include three types of stool tests – an annual fecal occult blood test, the annual fecal immunochemical test (FIT), and a periodic stool DNA test.
2. Know your risk factors
Know the risk factors associated with colon problems:
- high-fat diet
- family or personal history of colorectal cancer
- personal history of polyps or growths inside the colon and rectum
- other medical conditions that elevate your risk, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- diabetes – people with diabetes have a 40 percent increased risk of colon cancer
- ethnic background – African Americans have the highest number of colorectal cancer cases in the United States.
3. Know the symptoms
Be vigilant about scheduled screenings, and if you experience symptoms of colon cancer, see your doctor sooner. Symptoms may include persistent abdominal discomfort, a change in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation, or a change in stool consistency), abdominal pain accompanying a bowel movement, dark stools, weakness or fatigue, unexplained weight loss, or blood in the stool.
Symptoms vary, and certain foods or medications or other health problems can also mimic these symptoms. It’s best to err on the safe side and check with your doctor when you notice changes.
It is important to remember that in some patients, colon cancer can be present with no symptoms, stressing the importance of routine screening.
4. Practice prevention
A balanced diet, regular exercise, and smart lifestyle choices may reduce your risk level. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provides nutrients and antioxidants that fight disease. Low-fat dairy products and limited consumption of red meat keep saturated fat intake low. Getting vitamins and minerals through a daily supplement helps, but food-based vitamins are more effective and more easily absorbed by the body. Regular exercise – at least 30 minutes most days of the week – helps build your body’s defenses. Finally, quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption help, too.
5. Know your options
During your annual check-up visit, talk with your doctor about the best way to manage your risk. Together, you and your doctor can determine a colon cancer screening plan that works best for you.