Colon Cancer: The Importance of Catching it Early

Colon cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States among men and women. More than 90% of those diagnosed early (when the cancer is still at a local stage) survive more than five years. But if the diagnosis happens later, once the cancer has spread, that survival rate drops. That’s why it’s so important to do what you can to detect colon cancer early.

Only 40% of cases are caught in the early stages of the disease, and early symptoms are rare. The only way to know for sure if there is a problem is to get tested. Experts recommend that most people begin annual testing at age 45, but people with increased risk, such as those with a family history of colon cancer or diabetes, are encouraged to speak with their doctor earlier.

So, what is a colon cancer test? Colonoscopies, which are what most people think of, are when a doctor uses a flexible, lighted tube to view your entire colon and rectum for precancerous polyps. Patients are often sedated for the exam and it requires a full day of fasting to clean out the colon beforehand.

If you want something more comfortable, you have options. Other recommended screening tests include a sigmoidoscopy, which is similar to a colonoscopy but uses a smaller tool and doesn’t screen the entire colon, and a fecal occult blood test (doctors examine stool for blood, which is a signal there are polyps in the colon).

As mentioned earlier, you may not experience any symptoms, but you should still keep an eye out for unexplained weight loss, prolonged constipation or diarrhea, unnecessary urges to have a bowel movement, cramping in your lower stomach, a change in the shape of your stools, dark or black stools, rectal bleeding and blood in the stool. If any of those occur, see your doctor immediately.

You can reduce your risk of colon cancer with a few lifestyle changes:

• Get smart about meat. Eat less red meat (beef, pork and lamb) and processed meats (hot dogs and some lunch meats), which have been linked with an increased risk of colon cancer.
• Keep an eye on the scale: Try to maintain a body mass index of 18 to 25. Being obese or very overweight increases your risk of colon cancer.
• Add in regular physical activity. People who rarely exercise have a greater chance of developing colon cancer.
• Limit smoking and alcohol intake. The American Cancer Society recommends no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.

Learn more about reducing your risk for other types of cancer by checking out these other blogs:

Photo credit: Thitaree Sarmkasat

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