Colon cancer screening saves lives

Colon cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, develops in the colon or rectum and typically begins as small, noncancerous clumps of cells called polyps. Over time, these polyps can turn into cancer, making regular screenings and awareness campaigns critical for early detection.

During National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March public health campaigns seek to educate individuals about the risks, preventive measures, and early detection methods associated with this potentially life-threatening disease. As a leading cause of cancer-related deaths, understanding colon cancer and adopting preventive measures is essential.

Colon cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer death in men and women. A family history of colon cancer as well as obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, smoking and heavy alcohol use are risk factors.

Colon cancer screening is a proven life-saving measure. By identifying and removing polyps or detecting cancer at an early stage, screenings contribute to reduced mortality rates. Public awareness campaigns emphasize the importance of scheduling screenings as part of routine healthcare, urging individuals to take control of their colorectal health.

The American Cancer Society recommends that people at average risk of colon cancer start regular screening at age 45. The change several years ago from age 50 to 45 was based on the trend of growing cases among younger adults. It’s unclear what the exact cause is for more colorectal cancer in younger adults, however there are multiple factors that have been associated including genetics, environmental, diet and obesity-related risks.

Those who are in good health and with a life expectancy of more than 10 years should continue regular colorectal cancer screening through the age of 75.

“What people should know is that colon cancer is preventable,” explains Dr. Evan Kelly, general surgeon and interventional endoscopist at Riverwood Healthcare Center.  “From the time the first abnormal cells start to grow into polyps, it can take from a few years to several years to develop into cancer. Regular screening can, in many cases, prevent colorectal cancer altogether. This is because polyps, or growths, can be found and removed before they have the chance to turn into cancer. Screening can also help us identify colorectal cancer early, when it is highly curable.

“While there are several tests for colon cancer, including fecal occult blood tests and flexible sigmoidoscopies, colonoscopy is the gold standard that we highly recommend. This screening should be performed every 10 years for an individual at average risk of colon cancer, or earlier and more often in people at increased risk, including those with a personal or family history of polyps or colorectal cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease. If your doctor is recommending a colonoscopy, don’t put it off, just do it.”

Take charge of your health
The good news is that colon cancer is highly preventable when you adopt healthy lifestyle habits.

 Eat healthy: Eating a diet rich in whole grains and fiber can lower the risk of colon cancer. But most people don’t get enough of either. A general goal is to try to eat three or more servings of whole grains every day, and 22 to 34 grams of fiber every day, depending on sex and age. Limit your consumption of red and processed meats (bacon, hamburger, sausage, hotdogs) and other foods with a high fat content (French fries, chips).

Stay active: Aim for exercising or walking at least 30 minutes/day. Make it fun—doing an activity you enjoy like dancing, walking with a friend, or trying a new sport. Check with your doctor before beginning any strenuous exercise routine.

Quit tobacco:  Long-term cigarette smoking is associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer, even after accounting for known risk factors such as race, body mass index, and a family history of the disease, according to a new study by American Cancer Society.

Limit alcohol use: Alcohol use has been linked with a higher risk of cancers of the colon and rectum. If you drink alcohol, limit how much you drink. Low to moderate use is usually defined as 1-2 drinks a day for a man or 1 drink a day for a woman.

Dr. Kelly adds, “Colon cancer awareness, screening, and preventive measures can all help save lives. As we continue to advance in medical knowledge, staying informed and proactive about colorectal health remains a key priority for individuals and communities alike.”