You can stop colon cancer before it starts

vegetable display

Are you 50 or older or know someone that age? Maybe a parent?  If so, read on!

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so take a minute now to learn about one of only two cancers that actually can be prevented through screening.  (The other is cervical cancer.)  As with all cancers, the more you know, the better off you and your loved ones will be.

Despite the public's increased awareness about colorectal cancer (commonly referred to as colon cancer), several myths persist. The two biggest ones are that colon cancer is a man’s disease and that colon cancer can't be prevented. In fact, colon cancer is just as common among women as men. It is third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the U.S. and the third leading cause of cancer death for men and women.

The truth - and good news - is that about half of all colon cancer deaths a year could be prevented in the U.S. if everyone age 50 and older got screened for colon cancer. Colorectal cancer almost always starts with a polyp - a small growth on the lining of the colon or rectum - that doctors can remove and stop colorectal cancer before it starts. Even when not prevented, colon cancer in its early stages is highly treatable, with a five-year survival rate of 90%. However, due in part to people failing to get tested, only 39% of colon cancers are detected at this stage. The important message here is:  Get tested!

Who needs to get tested?
If you are 50 or older, get screened for colon cancer. Why 50?  Because risk of colon cancer increases with age and more than 90% of cases are diagnosed in individuals 50 and older. If you have a family history of the disease, talk to your doctor about getting screened earlier.

A personal or family history of colon cancer or polyps or of inflammatory bowel disease of significant duration increases the likelihood of having colon cancer. Also, there are certain genetic factors that increase the likelihood of having colon cancer, including conditions called familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP); Gardner’s syndrome; Lynch syndrome, also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer; and being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. Studies also have found that individuals with type 2 diabetes are at higher risk of colorectal cancer.

What test is best?
Tests that can detect precancerous polyps and cancer are preferred to tests that detect cancer alone. The tests used to screen for both polyps and cancer are done either by looking at the colon using a scope that is put into the rectum or with special x-ray tests.  The American Cancer Society recommends that people, starting at age 50, get one of the following:

- Flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years, or
- Colonoscopy every 10 years, or
- Double contrast barium enema (DCBE) every five years, or
- CT colonography (CTC) every five years

Tests that primarily detect cancer involve testing the stool (feces) for signs of cancer. These tests are easier to have done, but they are less likely to find polyps. All positive tests should be followed up with a colonoscopy.

Click here for more details about types of screening.

Can I reduce my risk?
Yes! Here are things you can do every day to lower your chances of getting colon cancer and many other cancers, as well:

• Get to and stay at a healthy weight throughout life; stay lean without being underweight.
• Be physically active; limit the time you spend sitting, lying down, watching TV, etc.
• Eat at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits each day.
• Choose whole grains over refined grain products.
• Limit the amount of red meat and processed meat you eat, including pork.
• If you drink alcohol, limit the amount to 1 drink per day for women, 2 per day for men.
• Don’t use tobacco in any form.

In summary
Colon cancer is preventable, treatable, and beatable. It can be prevented by finding and removing polyps before they become cancerous. It is also highly treatable if found in its early stages. Begin screening at age 50, and before age 50 if there is a strong family history of risk factors.