March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. It is important because it provides opportunities for you to educate yourself and others about this disease, screening methods, and preventative measures. Regular colon cancer screenings are encouraged because six out of 10 deaths can be prevented, if all people 50 and older were tested, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Gastrointestinal Specialists of Georgia offers comprehensive colon cancer screening. A colonoscopy is the gold standard screening tool for colon cancer and is able to diagnose and treat pre-cancerous lesions known as polyps. Still, it’s important to get the word out because many people are unaware of the risk and the testing options available. Here is an overview, details on how you can get involved, and insights on lowering your risk of developing this fatal disease.
Statistics on Colon Cancer
The statistics are quite staggering. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention places colorectal cancer second in terms of cancer deaths. Over 50,000 people in the nation die from it every year. Each year, an estimated 140,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed.
Over 90% of the time, the person diagnosed is over the age of 50.
While most of the risk factors are avoidable (more on these later), age is one you cannot avoid. The risk of getting colorectal cancer increases with age. Screening tests are, therefore, encouraged if you’re 50 years of age or older.
Another factor is that the precursors to the disease often don’t have symptoms. Precancerous polyps can take years to become malignant; removing these before then can prevent colon cancer altogether. Some of the symptoms, if present, may include the following, although there are causes other than cancer:
- Blood in bowel movements
- Persistent stomach pains
- Unexplained weight loss
- Sudden constipation or diarrhea
- Narrower stool than usual
The American Cancer Society (ACS) puts the lifetime risk of developing this disease at 1 in 22 for men and 1 in 24 for women. For the past few years, the death rate has dropped. This applies to both men and women diagnosed with colorectal cancer. In addition to improved treatments, earlier screening, detection, and removal of polyps are being attributed to this trend.
While the ACS puts the 5-year survival rate for Stage 1 colon cancer at 92%, the National Cancer Institute puts the survival rate for those with localized early-stage cancer at 89.9%. The more progressed the cancer is when found, the lower the survival rate. From 2007 to 2013, the overall 5-year survival rate for colorectal cancer was 64.9%. Over 1.3 million Americans were living with colorectal cancer in 2014.
Awareness, screening, and early detection are the greatest assets in preventing the disease.
Importance of Colon Cancer Awareness Month
Colon Cancer Awareness Month aims to get more than just doctors and other healthcare professionals involved. It also strives to raise awareness and action among:
The idea of it is for people to band together to help raise awareness. This disease affects men and women and people in all ethnic and racial groups. According to the Ochsner Journal, about 50% of people in categories recommended for colon cancer screening have been tested, including physicians and their families. Only by getting screened for it can an individual benefit from the declining incidence and mortality rates over the past couple of decades.
Colon Cancer Awareness Month is about participating in awareness. Being active can encourage others to obtain screenings, treat polyps early, and advocate for others to do the same. It also educates more people about the risk factors, prevention, and availability of colon cancer screenings.
There are many ways to get involved:
- Encourage family and friends: Talk to others about getting screened for colorectal cancer. Many people avoid colonoscopies because of their invasiveness, but the techniques have improved. In addition to talking to others about the importance of colon cancer screening, family members and friends can exercise together, as physical activity lowers the risk somewhat.
- Spread the word: Organizations can tweet about Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month or host community events to promote screening and local health resources. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides information on how to announce a colorectal cancer event in a newsletter or media release, along with statistics and the importance of screening.
- Join local initiatives: The Colorectal Cancer Alliance hosts local walks, collectively known as the Undy RunWalk. These events raise money and awareness in major cities. Awards are given for top finishers, the largest team, top fundraisers, and other achievements.
- Join the Call-On-Congress: Each year, survivors, caregivers, and their loved ones participate in a three-day event organized by the group Fight Colorectal Cancer. One doesn’t have to attend in person to be active. The organization allows for virtual participation through its website, enabling people to comment on Facebook Live video streams or respond on Twitter.
Preventing Colon Cancer
There are several ways to lower your risk and protect your colon health. Each of them doesn’t do the job alone, so you need to consider several courses of action. Together, these can reduce the chances you will develop colorectal cancer.
Colon Cancer Screening: Colon cancer is most treatable the earlier it is detected. Long considered the gold standard in detecting early-stage cancer, a colonoscopy affords a visual look inside of the colon. Polyps form often long before they develop into cancer, so removing them is an effective preventative measure. That’s one reason to make an appointment with Gastrointestinal Specialists of Georgia.
- If you’re 50 or older, the recommended interval is a colonoscopy every 10 years.
- Screening should start at age 40 for those with a family history of colon cancer.
- People diagnosed with ulcerative colitis should consider early screening as well.
There are other tests as well. A fecal immunochemical test (FIT) checks for blood in the stool and is often suggested for those who do not want to undergo a colonoscopy. However, this has a much lower sensitivity to colon polyps and cancer and must be performed annually. Also, consider seeing a doctor if your bowel habits change; black stool can indicate intestinal bleeding and may be a sign of cancer.
Watch your diet: The food you eat has a direct impact on colon health. Red meat, including beef, lamb, and pork, and processed meats such as hot dogs, have long been associated with colon and general health risks. They’re linked to an increased cancer risk as well. However, it’s not only about what you shouldn’t eat; colon-friendly foods include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Consumption of saturated fat should be limited. When you eat too many fatty foods, bile acids are released in large quantities to break down saturated fat. Secondary bile acids produced in the colon can react with cells in the intestinal lining and contribute to tumor growth.
In addition to nutrients from foods eaten, rather than supplements, antioxidants are beneficial. These defend against free radicals. Free radicals can damage body tissues and increase the risk of cancer forming.
Other dietary suggestions include:
- Eat red meat in small portions, limited to four times a month.
- Check your calcium and vitamin D levels; deficiencies can increase colon cancer
- Focus on fish and plant-based foods high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Exercise: One of the possible benefits of physical fitness is a reduced risk of colon or rectal cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund attributes 20% of all cancers diagnosed in the nation to physical inactivity (less than 150 minutes per week of moderate activity), body weight, poor nutrition, and excessive alcohol consumption. Research suggests that not all cancer risks are related to genetics. Eating healthily and exercising are behavioral factors in one’s lifetime cancer risk, as they are for conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Lose weight: Obesity and being overweight are risk factors for developing cancer. These also increase your risks of death from the disease. A healthier diet and physical activity are beneficial in controlling body weight. The fat hormone leptin is often elevated in people with obesity and has been linked to the prevalence of precancerous polyps. A higher body mass index is associated with such risk as well.
As far as eating, strive for a varied diet that includes fruits and vegetables. The more diverse your diet is, the more diversity of the bacteria that live in your colon; these produce butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that helps keep colon cells healthy, prevents the growth of tumor cells, and encourages cancer cell destruction in the colon, according to HealthLine. This compound isn’t produced naturally by the human body.
Stop smoking: Cigarette smokers (both current and former) are at a high risk for colon cancer. There are thousands of chemicals in cigarettes, including cancer-causing agents and toxins. Plus, smoking increases the number of free radicals in the body, which are connected with polyp development. In fact, smoking is known to cause more aggressive polyps called flat adenomas. Smokers are also at a higher risk of dying once they develop cancer in their colon.
Drink less alcohol: Limited alcohol consumption has not been linked to increased risk, but the American Cancer Society suggests limiting alcohol intake to two drinks per day in men and one per day for women. The organization defines one drink as 1½ ounces of 80 proof hard liquor, 12 ounces of beer, and five ounces of wine.
Lifestyle habits have among the highest links to colon-related malignancies of any type of cancer. Diet, exercise, and weight, when properly managed, can significantly lower your risk of not only colon cancer but also heart disease and diabetes.
Check Your Colon Health with Gastrointestinal Specialists of Georgia Today
GI Specialists of Georgia is a leading provider of colon cancer screening options in the region, including colonoscopy. Physicians use a flexible endoscopic tube to see the entire large intestine, and investigate the cause of symptoms, and detect early signs of cancer. Testing options are also available to view the small intestine (capsule endoscopy).
Learn more about Colon Cancer Awareness Month from the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. For additional information on screening options and to make an appointment, contact Gastrointestinal Specialists of Georgia by contacting us online or calling one of our office locations.