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Colon Cancer: A Screening Could Save Your Life

Cancer Gastroenterology Primary Care
Older African American couple smiling at camera

Because of increased screenings and treatment advances, colon cancer patients have a promising outlook compared with a few decades ago. Today, more than 1 million people have survived colorectal cancer in the United States.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. With more public awareness of screenings, primarily colonoscopies, the number of deaths from the disease will continue to fall.

Colon cancer risks and prevention

Just like other cancers, some risk factors for colon cancer are controllable but some, such as age and genetics, are not.

Let’s start with what you can do to lower your risk:

  • Alcohol/Tobacco – Limit alcohol use to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. Stop using tobacco products.
  • Diet – Eat healthy foods. Low-fiber foods, high-fat diets: diets lacking fruit and vegetables, as well as those heavy in red meat and processed meat (lunch meat, bacon, sausage) are linked to colon cancer.
  • Exercise – Be active. Lack of physical activity increases the risk of cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combination of these), spread throughout the week.
  • Weight – Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese raises your risk of colon cancer. A healthy weight can also prevent diabetes, which is a risk factor for colon cancer.

“We encourage all our patients to take these steps, not just to prevent colon cancer, but to reduce their odds of being diagnosed with other cancers, heart disease and other conditions,” says Brian Billings, M.D., board-certified, fellowship-trained colorectal surgeon. “At the same time, some risk factors are beyond your control.”

Those inherent risk factors include:

  • Age – More than 90 percent of colon cancer cases occur in people 50 years old or older. However, the rates of colon cancer in people younger than 50 have been increasing. Doctors haven’t pinpointed why yet.
  • Genetics – African-Americans are at a higher risk. So are people with a family history of colorectal cancer and those with a personal history of polyps.
  • Inflammatory intestinal conditions – Diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease can increase your risk of colon cancer.
  • Previous radiation therapy for cancer – Patients who’ve received radiation therapy directed at the abdomen to treat previous cancers have increased odds for colon cancer.

Colon cancer symptoms

Colorectal cancer begins when tumors form in the lining of the large intestine. Polyps, a small cluster of cells growing from the lining of the bowel, can also indicate colon cancer. Over time, these polyps can grow in size and become invasive colon cancer. Colonoscopy screening, performed by a physician who is skilled at the procedure, can dramatically decrease the risk of dying from colon cancer.

Many people experience no symptoms in the early stages of colon cancer. That’s why it’s so important to get regular screenings.

Signs and symptoms of colon cancer include:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Change in bowel habits – Diarrhea or constipation or a change in the consistency of stool.
  • Feeling that your bowel doesn't empty completely
  • Frequent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas or pain
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in stool
  • Stools that are narrow, dark or bloody
  • Weakness, fatigue or weight loss

“If you’re diagnosed with colon cancer, we have many weapons to attack it,” Dr. Billings says. “That can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.”

The best thing you can do is to talk with your primary care provider to coordinate your colon cancer screening.

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