It’s easy to forget about your colon. It typically does its thing without any fanfare and doesn’t really demand much special attention. So it’s good that March is National Colon Cancer Awareness month; otherwise the hardworking colon would pretty much be ignored.
That could be why colorectal cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Colon cancer and rectal cancer strikes men and women equally and in 2011, an estimated 143,000 Americans will learn they have colorectal cancer. About 40 percent will die from the disease because it will be diagnosed in the late stages when it is difficult to cure. That’s the bad news.
Here’s the good news. Although colon cancer can be deadly, the death rate has been going down for the last 15 years. Experts say that is because more people are being screened regularly. The truth is, colon cancer is one of the easiest cancers to prevent, and if caught early, it is one of the easiest cancers to cure.
The exact cause of colorectal cancer is unknown, however many cases start as small, noncancerous clumps of cells called polyps. There are several tests that can detect these polyps even if there are no symptoms present. Knowing the factors that may increase your risk of developing this disease can help you decide when to begin getting screened, but everyone is encouraged to have their first screening at age 50, earlier if there is a family history of colorectal cancer.
Age is one of the most important factors. About 90 percent of people diagnosed with colon cancer are age 50 or older, although that does not mean it cannot affect people younger than that. If you are over 50 consider scheduling regular preventative screenings and diagnostic tests. These are important because symptoms are not always present, so these tests are the best way to find polyps or other irregularities early. Polyps can be removed during some screenings to prevent cancer from developing. And because of the newly-enacted health care law, many insurance companies provide these screenings at little or no cost to the patient.
For certain groups the risk of this type of cancer is higher. If your close relatives—parents, siblings or children—have had this cancer, you may be at increased risk, especially if your relative got the cancer at a younger age. Also, people of African-American and Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish decent have a higher colorectal cancer risk and may need to begin testing before age 50.
Lifestyle choices, such as eating large amounts of processed meats, smoking, not exercising and heavy alcohol use have been linked to colorectal cancer. In fact, the links between diet, weight and exercise and colorectal cancer risk are some of the strongest for any type of cancer. Diets high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains have been linked with a lower risk of colorectal cancer.
While it is possible to have no symptoms early on, they may appear as the disease progresses. Symptoms include blood in the stool; bleeding from the rectum; changes in constitution of stool, including diarrhea, constipation or narrow stools; frequently having gas pains or cramps, or feeling full or bloated. Talk with your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. They can be caused by a variety of illnesses and your doctor can screen for other causes at the same time. It’s a conversation that can save your life.
To learn more about colorectal cancer visit the National Cancer Institute at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/colon-and-rectal
Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, she pens Nonsmoking Nation, a blog following global tobacco news and events.