Preventing Colon Cancer

More frequent and earlier screening is recommended if you are at high risk for colon cancer.

Colonoscopy Offers the Best Prevention

There is good news and bad news when it comes to colon cancer. The bad news is that colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States. The good news is that it is one of two types of cancer that can be prevented with screening (cervical cancer is the other preventable cancer). According to the American Cancer Society, over half of all colon cancer fatalities in the United States could be prevented if every man and woman over 50 years of age chose to be screened for colon cancer.

More than any diet or exercise regimen, a colon screening offers the best prevention when it comes to colon cancer. The disease almost always begins with a polyp, a small cluster of cells in the lining of the colon or rectum.  During a screening, a gastroenterologist is searching for polyps that are cancerous or may develop into cancer.

There are many screening methods available, but the colonoscopy is the most thorough screening procedure because it allows your doctor to see the entire length of your colon to examine for polyps, lesions and abnormalities. Other screening methods like flexible sigmoidoscopy, virtual colonoscopy, double contrast barium enema, and fecal occult blood test are valuable, but they are incomplete in their conclusions and often result in further testing.

A colonoscopy offers:

  • Preventative Care—Your doctor can give you an “all-clear” if no polyps or adenomas are found in the screening.
  • Treatment—Your doctor can often remove small precancerous polyps during the colonoscopy so they will not develop into cancer.
  • Diagnosis—If your doctor finds a suspicious polyp or growth, a biopsy can be performed to test the cells for cancer. If necessary, treatment can begin immediately.

Know Your Risk

Another common myth about colon cancer is that it only affects the elderly. Regular colonoscopies should begin at age 50 for people with an average risk for developing colon cancer. However, if you have a family history of polyps or colon cancer, many physicians may recommend getting your first colonoscopy at age 40 or even earlier depending on your history. African-Americans should start getting screened at age 45. More frequent and earlier screening is recommended if you are at high risk for colon cancer or if you have a genetic disease such as Lynch syndrome or Familial Adenomatous Polyposis syndrome (FAP).

Know the Warning Signs

Even when a polyp develops into colon cancer, it is highly treatable in its early stages and has a five-year survival rate of 90 percent. However, only 39 percent of colon cancers are detected in early stages. In recent years, we are seeing the trends shift in colon cancer diagnosis. The incidence of colon cancer among adults over 50 is decreasing because of increased screening rates. Unfortunately, the incidence of colon cancer among adults between the ages of 20 and 49 is increasing. This is due in part to genetic conditions, but factors such as unhealthy lifestyle, inadequate health care and lack of education are also responsible for this steady increase.

Therefore, prevention is not limited to older adults. Young-onset colon cancer is a growing concern, and it is important that everyone, regardless of age, is aware of the warning signs and risk factors of colon cancer. You are never too young for colon cancer, so education and awareness are essential components of colon cancer prevention.

Healthy Choices are a Good Start

A healthy lifestyle is another great way to prevent colon cancer and other cancers. Eating nutritious foods and getting regular exercise are important components in preventing colon cancer. We know this because a high-fat diet and sedentary lifestyle are risk factors for colon cancer. A diet based on fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains, along with consistent physical activity helps prevent the accumulation of toxins in the digestive tract and reduces inflammation in the colon. Other healthy lifestyle choices like avoiding smoking and alcohol can help prevent cancer cells from developing in the colon.

Stay Current with Doctor Visits

Finally, staying in close communication with your doctor will help prevent colon cancer. If you are visiting your doctor regularly before your baseline colonoscopy, the chances are high that you will follow recommended screening guidelines. It is also more likely that you will feel more comfortable discussing any changes in digestive or bowel habits with your doctor.

If you knew that a screening could protect you from a deadly disease, you would choose to be tested, would you not? A colonoscopy may be the most important test you ever take. If you follow other preventative measures like making healthy lifestyle choices, knowing your risk, knowing the warning signs of colon cancer and keeping current with check-ups, you have the best opportunity to remain colon cancer free.