Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. Thanks to advanced screening measures, it’s also a highly preventable disease—and treatable when discovered early. Yet far too many individuals and families have to deal with a difficult diagnosis because they don’t know what to do to protect their colons—or are afraid to do it.
As a gastroenterologist, one of my passions is taking the fear and embarrassment out of GI exams and discussions so that people are willing to get the care they need. Below are five of the most important things I think everyone should do when it comes to reducing their colon cancer risk.
1. Get a colonoscopy.
A colonoscopy is the absolute best way to check for cancer and to prevent it through polyp removal. The procedure allows doctors to catch issues early on, removing pre-cancerous polyps and catching cancerous ones before they even produce symptoms. Between 30 and 40 percent of individuals have polyps on their first screening. The earlier issues are caught, the greater the chance of a cure.
What’s more, while colonoscopies sound uncomfortable, they’re actually quite unremarkable. Drinking the prep to clean out the bowels is the worst part. The actual procedure is extremely simple and takes just 25 to 30 minutes. Sedation is provided, and most patients drift off to sleep and do not remember the procedure.
2. Know the facts about other screening methods.
A stool test can find trace amounts of blood or DNA from cancer and detect if a patient already has the disease. Stool tests are not as good as a colonoscopy at detecting pre-cancerous polyps. And while these stool-based tests are surely better than no screening, only a colonoscopy can help prevent colon cancer by allowing doctors to remove the polyps that lead to cancer.
3. Discuss your family history with your doctor.
Most individuals need to begin colon cancer screenings at 50, which is the age that colon cancer generally starts appearing. However, individuals with a family history of colon cancer or advanced polyps, and individuals who have inflammatory bowel disease may need to start screenings earlier. African Americans are at higher risk of the disease and may consider beginning screenings at age 45.
4. Treat your body well.
Eating a diet rich with fiber, fruit, and vegetables and maintaining a healthy weight can help protect people from colon and other cancers. It’s also best to avoid red meat and alcohol, which are linked to an increased risk. Of course, smoking is never a good idea. Certain adults who are 50-plus may benefit from taking a daily low-dose aspirin, which can decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease and possibly colorectal cancer.
5. Pay attention to concerning symptoms.
While most colon cancers occur in those age 50-plus, everyone, no matter their age, should see their doctor if they notice concerning GI issues. Bloody stools, weight loss, a change in bowel habits, and persistent abdominal pain all warrant a trip to the doctor.
Dr. John Randles is a gastroenterologist at Vancouver Clinic. He was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and has a special interest in colon cancer screening.