Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death among women, and the second most common overall. Follow these simple steps to avoid colorectal cancer:
1. Get Screened: This truly is the most important step. Almost all colorectal cancer starts as non- cancerous polyps or abnormal cells in the lining of the colon/rectum: when detected and removed in this stage you are cured. These polyps cannot become cancerous, since they have been removed. Both detection and removal can occur during your colonoscopy, and could be the difference between cancer developing or not. If you don’t have symptoms or a family history, screenings should start between the ages of 45 and 50.
2. Know Your Family History: Only 30% of cases are hereditary, but if you have a family history of cancer (colorectal or otherwise) or of non-cancerous polyps, your personal risk is much higher. Depending on your background, screening may be recommended as early as age 20. Typically, though, screening is recommended “10 years younger than it was diagnosed in your family member.” For example, if your grandmother’s cancer was diagnosed at 45, you should consider getting screened at 35. Talk to your doctor to map out a specific prevention plan.
3. Healthy Body-Healthy Colon: It’s not a body part that people often focus on when they think about health. The good news is, colon health can be achieved without focusing directly on it. A healthy diet and active lifestyle can keep your insides happy and reduce cancer risk. Avoid excessive red meat and overly processed foods, as well as obvious carcinogens like smoking. Combined with regular exercise and a healthy body weight (BMI less than 25), this should help keep your colon in good shape.
4. Know the Symptoms: Most polyps become cancerous before showing symptoms, which is why regular screening is so important. However, several symptoms can be indicative of bowel issues. If you experience any of the following, you should consult your doctor and consider a colonoscopy (regardless of your age): a change in bowel habits (such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool) which lasts more than a few days, rectal bleeding, blood in the stool which may cause the stool to look dark, cramping or abdominal pain, unexplained weakness and fatigue or unintended weight loss.
5. Don’t be Embarrassed: The colon and the rectum may be uncomfortable to talk about, but they’re certainly important. If you’re experiencing irregular bowel movements or symptoms, are aware of health issues in your family, or just want to talk things over, your doctor is there for you. They want to help, and the only way they can is if you open up and discuss ALL potentially relevant details with them. While the disease can have dire consequences if left untreated, there is hope: with proper screening and care, it’s almost entirely preventable. Be aware, talk to your doctor, and get screened. That’s all it takes to reduce your risk of colon/rectal cancer. So what’s stopping you?
Dr. John Marks is Chief of Colorectal Surgery for Lankenau Medical Center, part of the Main Line Health System in Philadelphia, PA.