How to Protect Yourself From Colon Cancer

How to Protect Yourself From Colon Cancer

I had this entire post written and ready to publish, but then my Google Alerts starting blowing up with dozens of stories like this:

“Colon and Rectal Cancers Rising in Young People”

“Colon Cancer’s Up Among Gen Xers And Millennials”

“Colorectal Cancer Rates Rise Sharply In Younger US Adults”

A study was published today in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that shows that colorectal cancer incidence in young people has skyrocketed. In fact, a person born in 1990 has twice the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer as someone who was born in 1950.

This is really a big deal, folks! We never see huge jumps in cancer rates like this.

So why are we seeing this gigantic surge of colorectal cancer decades before it typically presents? If you’ve read my last two posts, you probably have an idea as to why. Sadly, the blame falls on us. It is our obesity, our lack of exercise, and our unhealthy diet.

We are truly in a health crisis in this country. It’s past time for us to wake up and do something about it!

So now that I’ve brought you up to speed on this late-breaking news, here is the post I originally wrote for you…

March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month

It seems lately that every month is dedicated to bringing awareness to a different cancer or disease. We see headlines about it on the news or read something about it in the paper. Social media profiles are replaced with photos of a pink ribbon, a blue ribbon, a purple ribbon, or whatever color ribbon represents the disease of that particular month. Fundraisers are held and money is donated to help support the cause.

But the truth is—most of us pay little, if any, attention to the message of awareness that we are meant to hear. I’m not entirely sure why this is. Maybe we feel like it doesn’t really affect us. Or maybe it just doesn’t interest us. Whatever the reason, the message often falls on deaf ears.

Well, I’m here today to beg you to start paying attention! Especially this month!

Colon Cancer Is A Killer

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in our country. It will strike one out of every twenty people alive today and will kill one out of every three people diagnosed with the disease.

Colon Cancer Can Be Prevented

But what if I also told you that colon cancer can be easily screened for and frequently prevented? What if I told you that it is highly curable if found in its earliest stages? What if I told you that you can significantly decrease your risk through diet and lifestyle?

Would you want to know more about how you can protect yourself from this disease?

Hopefully, right now you are thinking “Heck, yeah I would! Tell me more!”

In today’s post,  I will tell you what you need to know about this devastating disease. I will help you figure out if you are at risk and what you can do about it. I will also educate you about what screening tests you should be getting and when you should be getting them.

By following these guidelines for prevention and screening,  you can decrease your risk of colon cancer tremendously.

But First—A Quick Anatomy Lesson

When you eat, food enters the stomach, passes into the small intestine, through your colon and out your body through the rectum. Your stomach and small intestine digest your food and absorb the nutrients.  The colon works primarily to remove water from the waste material as it passes out of your body.

Food remains in the stomach and small intestine only a total of six to eight hours. But the waste from that food remains in the colon for an average of FORTY hours. When there are carcinogens in this waste material, there is plenty of time for these carcinogens to do a lot of damage to your colon’s cells. Over time, this damage causes bumps of tissue, called polyps, to form. Given more time, many of these polyps will turn into cancer. 

Screening Works

It is for this reason that colorectal cancer screening works so well. These polyps typically take 10-15 years before they develop into cancer. When these polyps are found early through screening, they can be removed before they become cancerous. Regular screening can also find colorectal cancers in their earliest stages, at which time they are highly curable.

Are You At Risk For Colon Cancer?

Age

The number one risk factor for colon cancer is age. Most colon cancers have traditionally been diagnosed after the age of 50. With that said, I have quite a few patients in their 30s and 40s—and even a couple of patients in their 20s. So no matter your age, it is important that you do not ignore potential signs or symptoms of colon cancer. These can include changes in bowel habits, narrowing of the stool, a feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that won’t go away, abdominal pain, blood in the stool, black tarry stool, or unexplained weight loss. 

Family History

If you have a sibling, parent, or child with colorectal cancer—especially if they were diagnosed before the age of 55—your risk for colorectal cancer doubles. However, it’s important to know that only 20% of people diagnosed with colon cancer have a family history of the disease. So don’t fall into the trap of believing you are safe because no one in your family has ever been diagnosed with colon cancer.

Personal History of Certain Cancers

If you have a history of a prior colon cancer, you are at increased risk of forming a second colon cancer. You are also at increased risk if you have had a high-risk polyp (also called an adenoma) or have a history of ovarian cancer.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

If you have inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis, your risk for colon cancer increases above average starting about 8 years after your inflammatory bowel disease began.

Genetic Disorders

There are also a few familial genetic disorders that increase the risk of those affected, but these account for <5% of all colon cancers.

The Importance of A Healthy Lifestyle

There are a number of lifestyle factors that put you at significantly increased risk for colon cancer. I discuss these in great detail here and here. Please go read this information. It really could save your life!

As a brief review, the following lifestyle choices significantly decrease your risk of colorectal cancer:

    • A diet high in fruits and vegetables
    • A high-fiber diet
    • A low-fat diet
    • Maintaining a healthy weight
    • Limiting consumption of red meat
    • Avoiding processed meat
    • Limiting alcohol consumption
    • Not using tobacco

A Word About Aspirin

Although several studies show that daily aspirin use decreases the risk of colon cancer, the recommendation is a complicated one. Daily aspirin is a two-edged sword. Its use decreases the risk of not only colon cancer but also of cardiovascular disease. The flip side is that daily aspirin use increases your risk for GI bleeding and your risk of bleeding in the brain.

Currently, the US Preventative Services Task Force recommends that you only take a low-dose aspirin each day if you are between the age of 50-59 and are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease. If you are 60-69 years old, you should only take an aspirin daily after discussing it with your doctor and deciding if the benefits outweigh the risks for you as an individual. If you are younger than 50 or older than 70, there is no benefit to taking aspirin on a regular basis.

Benefits of Screening

If you follow the recommendations for colon cancer screening, you will cut your chances of dying from colon cancer to almost zero. To be exact, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013 found that people who underwent regular screening with colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy had only a 0.5% chance of dying from colon cancer.

When Should You Start Screening?

Most people should start screening for colon cancer when they turn 50. If you have factors that put you at an increased risk, you should discuss this with your doctor and should probably start screening at a younger age.

You should continue screening until at least the age of 75, after which the decision to screen or not to screen should be based on your health and life-expectancy at that time.

Multiple Choices for Screening

There are several different ways that you can be screened, but you only need to choose one method. They each have their own advantages and disadvantages. 

Fecal Occult Blood Test

Fecal occult blood tests are done by collecting a stool specimen at home with a special kit and then returning it to your doctor. This test looks for blood in the stool which can be a sign that you have polyps or colon cancer. This has the advantage of being simple, inexpensive, and low risk—but some polyps or cancers may be missed. If this is the screening test you choose to use, it should be done annually.

Stool DNA Test

A stool DNA test is also done by collecting a stool specimen at home with a special kit and returning it to your doctor. This test is more expensive than the fecal blood test and is not good for finding polyps. It is also more likely to report a probable cancer when one does not exist. This test should be done once every three years. 

Sigmoidoscopy

A sigmoidoscopy is a procedure during which a flexible tube with a camera is inserted into the rectum and sigmoid colon. This test usually does not require sedation, and it allows the doctor to directly view polyps or cancers. The downside is that it does not evaluate the entire colon. A sigmoidoscopy should be performed every five years. 

Colonoscopy

A colonoscopy is also a procedure during which a flexible tube with a camera is inserted into the rectum. However, this procedure evaluates the entire colon. It is one of the best tests for finding cancers or polyps in the colon, but requires a thorough cleansing of the colon prior to the procedure and almost always requires sedation. If you choose colonoscopy as your screening method, you should have one once every ten years. 

Virtual Colonoscopy

A virtual colonoscopy is actually a type of CT scan in which a computer assembles the images into a 3D reconstruction of your colon. This is minimally invasive and no sedation is required. However, this test can miss small polyps and the procedure is not yet covered by many insurance carriers. 

The Best Screening Test For You

Ultimately the best screening test for you depends on a number of factors that should be discussed with your doctor. The most important thing is that you get screened. It very well may save your life.

You Hold The Power

When it comes to colon cancer, you truly hold the power. Lifestyle choices and screening make a huge impact on your risk of ever suffering from this devastating disease.

Let Me Know How I Can Help You

As always, please leave any comments, questions, or ideas below. I really do love hearing from all of you! Also, don’t forget to subscribe for updates and follow me on Facebook so you don’t miss my next post!

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