How to prevent colon cancer

Doctor listening to heartbeat


Doctor listening to heartbeat



Regular colorectal cancer screening is one of the most powerful weapons for preventing colorectal cancer. Screening is the process of looking for cancer or pre-cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease.

People who have no identified risk factors (other than age) should begin regular screening at age 50. Those who have a family history or other risk factors for colorectal polyps or cancer should talk with their doctor about starting screening at a younger age and/or getting screened more frequently.

You can lower your risk of developing colorectal cancer by managing the risk factors that you can control, like diet and physical activity.

Diets high in vegetables and fruits have been linked with lower risk of colon cancer. Diets high in processed and/or red meats have been linked with a higher risk. The American Cancer Society recommends that you eat a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant sources.

Avoiding excessive alcohol intake may also help lower your risk of colorectal cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 per day for men.

Physical activity is another area that you can control. The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity on 5 or more days of the week. Moderate or vigorous activity for at least 45 minutes on 5 or more days of the week may lower your risk for colorectal cancer even more.

Obesity raises the risk of colon cancer in both men and women, but the link seems to be stronger in men. The American Cancer Society recommends that people try to maintain a healthy weight throughout life by balancing what they eat with physical activity. If you are overweight, you can ask your doctor about a weight loss plan that will work for you.

— The American Cancer Society

The American Cancer Society recommends regular colon cancer screenings for patients 50 and older.

So if you’re over the age of 50 and you’ve never had one, what’s stopping you?

The screening is important for two reasons:

One: Colon cancer is one of the leading forms of cancer along with breast cancer and lung cancer. But it’s one of the most preventable forms of cancer because modern technology has given doctors the tools to spot colon cancer in its earliest stages while it’s still treatable and curable.

Two: There’s really no way a doctor could know whether you’re at risk for colon cancer by assessing your outward physical characteristics. People who are overweight and eat a bad diet might have excellent colon health, while a health nut on a vegan diet could be harboring cancerous polyps. Genetics seem to have as much to do with the potential for cancer as other factors, experts say.

But many people — especially older Americans — are reluctant to undergo a colonoscopy if they feel like they’re in good health.

The biggest obstacle to someone having a colonoscopy is fear of the procedure itself or fear of the findings. Embarrassment also plays a role.

A colonoscopy consists of having a thin flexible tube with a tiny high-definition camera on the end inserted into the large intestine through the rectum. This piece of equipment is called an endoscope and it allows for a visual examination of the entire length of the large intestine.

Patients are sedated to minimize discomfort. Before the procedure patients will undergo a “bowel prep.” Patients will ingest fluids that will cause bowel movements until the large intestine has been emptied.

Gastroenterologists tell their patients that the short-term discomfort of not eating and the process of bowel cleansing are minor compared to the importance of information gained and the potential to prevent colon cancer. Once you start eating normally again after the procedure your bowels quickly return to normal.

After the procedure, which is usually performed on an out-patient basis in an endoscopy center, a gastroenterologist will share the preliminary findings. Biopsies may have been taken during the colonoscopy and results will take several days to be processed.

During the colonoscopy, the doctor is looking for polyps. A polyp is a growth or extra tissue shaped like a mushroom or dome-like button that grows from the lining of the colon. Some are benign, some are precancerous and some are cancerous.

Using special equipment that is passed through the scope, the doctor can then remove polyps or obtain biopsies that are checked for cancer.

Depending on the results, you may be scheduled for follow-up colonoscopies.  Patients at higher risk might come in once a year or every two years. Patients with low risk might go 10 years between screenings.

Anyone can have polyps, but certain people are more likely than others. You may have a greater chance of developing polyps if:

• You are over 50. The older you get, the more likely you are to develop polyps.

• You have had polyps before.

• Someone in your family had polyps.

• Someone in your family has colon cancer.

You may also be more likely to get polyps if you:

• Eat a lot of fatty foods.

• Smoke.

• Drink alcohol.

• Don’t exercise.

• Are overweight.

Fruits and vegetables contain beneficial chemicals called antioxidants which contribute to good health. People who eat diets rich in fruits and vegetables seem to have a lower incidence of many cancers, including colon cancer.

To find out more about colon health, visit a gastroenterology practice. Many have literature, brochures and handouts that explain why colonrectal cancers are preventable and how colonoscopies are performed. Or visit the American Cancer Society’s website at

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