March is National Colon Cancer Awareness month.
Colon cancer affects both men and women at the same rates. It is the third-most common cancer in the United States, but the second-leading cause of cancer deaths. Close to 150,000 new cases of colon cancer will be diagnosed this year alone. And more than 50,000 people will die from this disease in 2014.
The colon is a part of your digestive system. It includes the loop of large bowel or large intestine in your body that is about five to six feet long. Its job is to absorb the water and nutrients from the foods you consume throughout the course of the day. Whatever is not absorbed back into your body is expelled as stool or feces.
Cancer that begins in the colon is called colon cancer. Most tumors in the colon begin when normal tissue in the colon wall forms a polyp or growth. Some of these growths in time can become cancerous. This is why colon cancer screening is so important. Every person over the age of 50 should get screened. Your risk of getting colon cancer greatly increases after your 50th birthday. Your doctor may recommend you have colon cancer screening sooner if you or a family member have a history of colon cancer or polyps. You may also be recommended for an early screening if you have a history of inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Colon cancer screening includes a colonoscopy and other tests for blood in the stool.
Most people can prevent colon cancer by undergoing screening to detect and remove polyps from the colon before they become cancerous. A colonoscopy allows your doctor not only to look for the polyps during the examination, but also to remove them right there on the spot. Removing these polyps is the most effective way to prevent the development of colon cancer. The disease can usually be cured if caught early enough. Screening is key.
Colon cancer may present with some vague signs and symptoms. You may notice a change in your bowel habits with either diarrhea or constipation. You may see that your stool has blood in it or is darkly colored. You may feel tired or weak, or experience weight loss for no known reason. You may feel that your bowels do not empty completely or you may have frequent gas pains or bloating. These are just some of the signs and symptoms. One person may have no symptoms at all, while another person may have multiple symptoms present.
Many lifestyle choices place you at a higher risk of developing colon cancer. For instance, if you are a smoker or drink alcohol in excess, you increase your chances of getting colon cancer. The same applies if you are obese. It has been shown that a diet high in fat, red meats and processed meats can have the same effect.
Healthy lifestyle habits can reduce your risk of colon cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Limit your alcohol consumption and eating of animal and dairy fats. Start a regular exercise program. Talk to your doctor about ways to help you to quit smoking.
Most colon cancers are preventable with regular screening. Talk to your doctor now.
Many insurance plans and Medicare help pay for colon cancer screening. Check with your plan to find out which tests are covered for you. To find out about Medicare coverage, call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a Colorectal Cancer Control Program that provides access to colon cancer screening to low-income, underinsured, or uninsured men and women aged 50–64 years in Pennsylvania. You may call 717-783-1457 for more information. ••
Adina Dees, M.D., practices family medicine with Epic Physician Group at 8019 Frankford Ave. in Holmesburg.