March is colorectal cancer awareness month and if you haven’t started thinking about your colon health, now is the time. Did you know there are more than 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed each year? Sadly, there will also be an estimated 50,000 deaths from colorectal cancer. It is the fourth most common cancer for men and women. Yet, it is one of the most preventable through screening and early detection. It is important to know the risk factors, symptoms, screening guidelines and treatment options available today.
Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer
A risk factor everyone should be aware of is their own family history. “Patients with close family members, who have had colon cancer or pre-cancerous polyps, are generally screened earlier,” says Utica Park Clinic gastroenterologist Dr. Christopher Lynch. “In many cases, we recommend screening at age 40 (rather than 50) or ten years before the earliest case in the family, whichever comes first. Additionally, some family members should be screened more often than the average risk patient.”
There are proactive measures you can take today to reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer, starting with diet. “Some evidence suggests that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and certain types of fiber may decrease a person's risk for colon cancer,” Dr. Lynch says. Additionally, a diet high in red meat, excessive alcohol intake, coupled with physical inactivity and obesity are also linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. “And as is the case with many cancers, cigarette smoking increases one's risk for colon cancer and polyps, and smokers have a higher chance of dying from colon cancer than non-smokers.”
Understanding your own risk factors for colorectal cancer and making appropriate lifestyle changes can help to reduce that risk. Taking the next step to make sure you are regularly screened is the best course of action to protect yourself, since many people don’t experience warning signs. “Often people tell me they don't have any symptoms of colon cancer, so they don't need to be screened,” shares Dr. Lynch. “In fact, the most common symptom of colon cancer or polyps is no symptom at all. This is a silent, preventable cancer; the average lifetime risk of developing colon cancer is 5 percent.”
Colorectal Cancer Screening
“Screening for colon cancer and pre-cancerous polyps is recommended at age 50,” explains Dr. Lynch. However, not everyone should wait until they are 50 to be screened. “Symptoms such as a change in bowel habits, blood in the stool, abdominal pain, or unexplained weight loss can indicate a problem and should prompt a visit with your health care provider no matter your age.”
If pre-cancerous polyps are discovered during a colonoscopy, Utica Park Clinic gastroenterologist Dr. Harvey Tatum explains how this early detection can help prevent the development of cancer. “Removal of polyps reduces the probability of developing colon cancer by removing precancerous tissue,” he says. “If no polyps are found on a high quality exam, repeat colonoscopy is not required for 10 years, as there is a markedly reduced risk of developing a cancer or high risk polyp in the interval. The finding of an adenomatous (precancerous) polyp requires a follow-up colon exam at a 3-5 year interval depending on the number, growth pattern and location. The identification of persons who form adenomas and the removal of these lesions and surveillance for subsequent lesions is the goal of our colon cancer prevention strategy.”
Colon cancer screening, however, carries preconceived ideas for many people – causing delay in screening, unfortunately. “I think many people understandably have hesitations about colon cancer screening, particularly a colonoscopy and are fearful of discomfort or embarrassment,” says Dr. Lynch. “In truth, the screening tools are safe, highly effective, and protective of the modesty of our patients.”
First Steps towards Better Colon Health
If you are 50 or older and have not had a colorectal cancer screening, talk to your health care provider and schedule a screening. If you are younger, talk to your family to better understand your family history of polyps and colorectal cancer. Make sure your health care provider is aware of any family history. Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables and fiber, while limiting alcohol intake. Exercise regularly and find a smoking cessation program to make plans to stop smoking if you currently smoke. Take the steps today to help from becoming one of the 140,000 people diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
“The average American at age 50 has approximately a 1 in 4 chance of having an adenoma polyp at their initial screening colonoscopy,” reveals Dr. Tatum. “Only a colonoscopy has the accuracy and ability to remove precancerous colon polyps and saves lives. A one-time exam does as much to prevent avoidable death as years of taking medication for hypertension and high cholesterol for prevention of cardiac disease. With about a 1 in 15 lifetime risk if developing colon cancer, having a high quality colonoscopy should be viewed as a rite of passage to the goal of a long and healthy life.”