Colon Cancer 101

Colon Cancer 101

David L. Carr-Locke, MD, Chief of Digestive Diseases and Co-Director of the Center for Digestive Health with Beth Israel Medical Center

If there was one thing you could do to almost guarantee you won’t get cancer, you’d probably jump at the chance to do it, right? There is such a screening. Colonoscopy has helped reduce the rate of colon cancer in recent years. 

“The incidence of colon cancer has been falling in the United States as screening becomes more accepted,” says David Carr-Locke, MD, Chief of Digestive Diseases and Co-Director of the Center for Digestive Health at Beth Israel Medical Center, a part of Continuum Hospitals of New York.  “We’re able to catch colon cancer at an early stage when it is completely curable or prevent it by removing polyps before they become cancer.”

Once a bit taboo, the test has come a long way in the past decade as high-profile celebrities like Katie Couric have lent their names to raising awareness about the effectiveness of colon cancer screening.

Colon cancer is curable

Without the benefit of early screening, colon cancer may be difficult to diagnose. You may not have any noticeable symptoms during the early stages of the disease, but your doctor will be able to spot polyps and remove them during your colonoscopy. Removing the pre-malignant polyps — called adenomas — prevents them from growing into cancerous tumors.

“We are detecting polyps at much earlier stages,” says Dr. Carr-Locke. “Sometimes we detect small areas of cancer within the polyp. We consider the cancer completely cured just by removing that polyp.”

By the time symptoms develop the cancer may be more advanced, or the symptoms could be an indication of another serious issue. See your doctor if you experience:

  • Blood in your stool
  • Cramping
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • A change in bowel habits or diarrhea or constipation that lasts more than a few days

Colon cancer that has become more advanced can still be treated using a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.

Who is at risk?

Your diet and genetic background each play a role in your risk for developing colon cancer. The typical American diet, which is high in fat, low in fiber and loaded with red meat, is associated with a higher risk for colon cancer compared with parts of the world where the diet is healthier. As part of your digestive system, your colon helps process the foods you eat. If it is repeatedly coming in contact with potentially harmful foods, the greater your chances for developing polyps.

Colon cancer risk factors include:

  • Age — If you are age 50 or older your risk is increased
  • Ethnicity — African Americans and Ashkenazi Jews (Eastern European descent) have increased risk for colorectal disease
  • Family history — If other members of your family had colon cancer or other cancers you may be at increased risk
  • Personal history — If you suffer from Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis you may be at increased risk

Colon cancer myths

There are some misconceptions about colon cancer risks and prevention. The truth is:

  • Men and women are equally at risk for developing colon cancer.
  • If you have no family history of the disease, it doesn’t mean you should skip your screening.

“The use or overuse of laxatives has nothing to do with reducing your colon cancer risk,” Dr. Carr-Locke explains. “Colonic cleansing as a preventive measure is another myth. Colonic cleansing won’t reduce your risk for colon cancer.”

Eating a low-fat, low-red meat and high-fiber diet could be helpful, but you have to make it a consistent part of your lifestyle. Drinking plenty of water and getting regular exercise are also potentially beneficial when they are a part of your daily routine.

The single best way to prevent colon cancer is to catch it early or before it has become cancer during your colonoscopy.

The most important colonoscopy is your first one

You should have your first colonoscopy when you turn 50 or 45 if you are African-American. If nothing unusual is found, you can probably wait 10 years until your next screening. Those with a higher risk should have colonoscopies every five years, even if the initial screening doesn’t find any polyps. Your first colonoscopy is the most important because it gives your doctor the chance to catch and remove any polyps early, and offers a starting point for detecting any changes during future screenings.

Dr. Carr-Locke acknowledges that lots of people are uneasy about the procedure at first, but notes that attitude is changing. “Most of us have a friend or relative who went through with a colonoscopy and lived to tell the tale! The more people share their successes with each other, the more people feel comfortable when it’s their time to get screened.”

Schedule your colonoscopy by calling 1-855-411-5969 or visiting CHPNYC.org

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Voice Your Perspective

Good to know that men and women are equally at risk for developing colon cancer - so important to get your screening done!

I think Sharon Osbourne also helped bring awareness to colon cancer. Bravo for high-profile people like Osbourne and Couric to bring some awareness to the public!

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