An easy formula to promote prevention, awareness of common cancer
Cancer of the colon is the fourth most common cancer in the United States – and, caught early, it’s also one of the most curable. About 90 percent of individuals whose cancer is found before it has spread survive five years after diagnosis. But, if not caught at this point, the five-year survival rate is just 10 percent.
Colon cancer is cancer of the large intestine, the lower part of the digestive system. Most cases begin silently, as a polyp that causes few symptoms. Five simple steps can protect your health.
1. Get tested
The American Cancer Society (ACS) strongly recommends that all adults over age 50 should begin routine colon cancer screenings. Earlier this year, the ACS issued additional screening, making a qualified recommendation that screening begin at age 45 years; the group estimates that more than 16,000 new cases of colon or rectal cancers will be diagnosed this year in Americans under 50. Some people are at higher risk and should be screened earlier, including personal or family history of inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer or polyps, or ovarian, endometrial or breast cancer.
ACS recommends those tests that actually examine the interior of the colon because they can not only detect cancer, but also prevent it by finding – and removing – polyps or growths that can potentially cause cancer. These tests include a flexible sigmoidoscopy (every five years); a colonoscopy (every 10 years); or a CT colonography or virtual colonoscopy (every five years). Polyps found during these tests can be removed on the spot, simply and painlessly.
Testing options that look for evidence of actual 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. Develop awareness
Know the risk factors associated with colon problems:
Advancing age, i.e., over age 50.
A high-fat diet.
A family (i.e., sibling or parent) or personal history of colorectal cancer.
A history of polyps or growths inside the colon and rectum.
Certain conditions that elevate your risk, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
Diabetes. People with Type II diabetes have a 40 percent increased risk of colon cancer.
Ethic 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 have certain symptoms, see your doctor sooner. Symptoms may include persistent stomach 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 can also mimic these symptoms. It’s best to err on the safe side and check with your doctor about changes.
4. Practice prevention
A balanced diet, regular exercise and smart lifestyle choices will keep your risk level in check. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains provides the nutrients and antioxidants that fight disease. Low-fat dairy products and limited consumption of red meat keep your saturated fat intake low. Getting your 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 20 minutes three to four days of the week – helps build your body’s defenses. Finally, quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption help, too.
5. Know your options
Talk with your doctor about the best way to manage your risk. If you have an above-average risk for colon cancer or an initial test reveals polyps, you and your doctor can decide the course of action that works best for you.
Jessie Surla is a doctor of nursing practice for Eastern New Mexico Medical Group Gastroenterology Specialists. The advice offered in this column is that of the author.