Colorectal Cancer — How to Fight Back
First, the bad news — at some point, almost 1 in 20 people will contract some form of colorectal cancer. It’s the third most common cancer, and the second-leading cause of cancer deaths.Now, the good news — compared to other cancers, colorectal cancer is highly preventable and highly curable. Between 85% and 90% of colorectal cancers can be treated and even prevented if caught early and the risk factors minimized.
So let’s get started.
The risk for colorectal cancer goes up as people get older, so if you’re over 50 and you’ve never had a colonoscopy, it’s time to get one. A colonoscopy is the single best screening for polyps — small growths on your colon that can become cancerous. If your colonoscopy is clear, you shouldn’t need another one for about 10 years.
There are also other ways to screen for colorectal cancer, but a colonoscopy is the gold standard.
Don’t be afraid of a colonoscopy
If the thought of having a colonoscopy makes you apprehensive, you’re not alone. Too many people ignore their doctor’s recommendation for a screening colonoscopy. But you shouldn’t — for the vast majority of people, colorectal cancer is preventable, and putting off a colonoscopy can put you at increased risk.
- A colonoscopy is normally not painful or uncomfortable; in fact, sedation keeps you comfortable throughout the procedure.
- The procedure itself lasts about 30 minutes or less.
- Recovery time is quick: most people feel normal after about an hour. Some activities, such as driving or operating machinery, should be avoided until the sedation wears off.
- The bowel preparation for a colonoscopy (which normally starts the day before the procedure) cleans the colon by removing all stool, and is not painful.
Liquid bowel-cleansing agents have become more palatable, with better-tasting and lower-volume solutions available.
What’s the best way to prevent it?
What you can do is minimize the risk. You may recognize some of the usual suspects:
Smoking — everyone associates smoking with lung cancer; it’s strongly linked with colon cancer as well. So stop smoking now.
Diet — for many people, less fat, less processed food and less red meat means less risk. It turns out that fiber, fruits and vegetables really are good for you; eating more from these groups helps reduce risk too. Moderating alcohol helps as well.
Food for a Healthy Colon!
Here’s a summary of some of the best eating tips I’ve found for maintaining a healthy colon — Darin Green, DO
- More fruits and vegetables: Green, leafy vegetables contain valuable antioxidants and fruits are great sources of carbohydrates that won’t increase blood sugar levels the way processed carbohydrates can (see no. 5 below).
- Drink your milk! Milk may help protect against colon cancer; that’s the finding of the American Institute of Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund. Calcium and vitamin D, both key nutrients in milk, appear to prevent and moderate the growth of polyps, and limit the growth of cancerous cells in the colon.
- Limit your intake of red meat and processed meats. Carcinogens have been identified in processed meats and in diets rich in red meat — beef, pork and lamb. Substitute with more poultry, fish, low-fat dairy and legumes.
- Replace trans fats (fried foods and margarine for example) and saturated fats (found in butter and red meat) with healthy unsaturated fats, found in fish, nuts, olive oil and avocado.
- Cut back on sugars — research is finding a significant link between foods that increase blood sugar levels and colon cancer risk.
- Choose whole grain over refined white flour foods. More nutritional value is retained and there’s less risk of increased blood sugar levels (see no. 5 above).
Get moving — even a little exercise goes a long way. If you’re overweight or inactive, your likelihood of getting cancer is much higher. But just 20 minutes of moderate exercise a day can reduce your risk as much as 25 percent.
The biggest risk factor . . .
In my mind, the most common risk of colon cancer is being over the age of 50, and not having a colonoscopy! — Darin Green, DO
The biggest risk factor for colon cancer is actually age — 90% of colon cancers that are diagnosed are in people over the age of 50. And while there’s nothing we can do about getting older, we can make sure we get a colonoscopy once we reach 50. Remember, a colonoscopy is the best way to detect signs of colon cancer, and colon cancer is highly treatable if detected early.
There are other risk factors we can’t change; previous colon polyps, inflammatory bowel disease, a family history of colon cancer or ethnic or racial background for example.
But there are risk factors you can change — smoking, obesity, inactivity, increased alcohol intake and poor diet. And changing them will go a long way toward protecting yourself from one of today’s most common cancers!
What about treatment?
More good news — a colonoscopy not only screens for polyps in your colon, in many cases if a polyp is found it can be removed during the same procedure.
Otherwise, most colorectal cancers can be treated with surgery to remove the part of the bowel that has cancer in it. For more advanced cases, chemotherapy may be recommended to decrease the chances of cancer returning. Sometime rectal cancer requires radiation treatment.