For some cancers, there are obvious warning signs to pay attention to – like lumps in the breast, or an irregular mole. However, colon cancer is different: often, a person can develop precancerous polyps or colorectal cancer without showing any symptoms of a colon problem at all.
The fact that colon cancer is often silent – yet is the second deadliest cancer among all cancers that affect both men and women – underscores the importance of routine screening tests.
The volume of screening tests across the country continues to increase. The percentage of adults between the ages of 50 to 75 who were up to date on screening tests increased by 2.8% between 2018 and 2020 to 71.6%. An estimated 64 million adults in that age range were screened for colorectal cancer in 2020.
There are some colon-related symptoms that should prompt a visit to the doctor:
- Abdominal pain, aches or cramps that don’t go away
- Change in the consistency of stool
- Diarrhea, constipation or feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty all the way
- Losing weight without explanation
- Rectal bleeding, or blood in or on stool
People with an average risk of colorectal cancer should begin regular screening at the age of 45. However, a personal history of colorectal polyps or a family history of colon cancer may increase a person’s risk.
Other risk factors that are typically out of a person’s control, but may lead to screenings before the age of 45, include:
- A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease
- A confirmed or suspected hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome
- A personal history of getting radiation to the abdomen or pelvic area to treat a prior cancer
Risk factors a person can control include diet, physical activity, alcohol use and smoking.
Screenings for colon and rectal cancer can catch the cancer before it begins and remove potentially troublesome polyps. Colonoscopies are the gold standard of screening tests for colorectal cancer, and there are other at-home screening tests available.
Colonoscopies have become simpler procedures, as improvements in the preparation laxatives – or “prep” – have made them much easier. There are better-tasting and lower volume prep solutions available, and it is now the standard to split the prep into two manageable doses instead of drinking it all at once. Advances in anesthesia have made colonoscopies much more comfortable as well.
Individuals should talk with a doctor about which screening is best and when to get one. It’s also important to consult with family about family medical history to find out if a loved one has dealt with related cancers, conditions, or abnormal colonoscopies.
Best and worst foods for colon health
A healthy diet – coupled with consistent exercise – can help prevent colon cancer.
Foods rich in protein play a major role in helping the body repair cells and tissues and boost the immune system. Recommended sources of protein include:
- Lean meats such as chicken, turkey and fish
Whole grains, like brown rice and oatmeal, and a variety of fruits and vegetables are three other staples of a colon-friendly diet. Diets that regularly include the consumption of red meats, processed meats, processed grains and sugary drinks can also increase a person’s risk for colon cancer.
Foods to avoid in excess include:
- Beef, pork lamb and liver
- Hot dogs and prepackaged deli meats
- White bread and other white-flour foods
- Sugary drinks like pop and artificially flavored juices
The earlier cancer is detected, the greater the chances of an effective treatment plan. Early colorectal cancer detection can save your life. This year, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be nearly 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed, and more than 50,000 people will die from it. Individuals should talk with their doctor about their family and medical history to see if it’s time to undergo a screening for colon cancer.
James D. Grant, M.D., is chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
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