What is colon cancer?
Cancers that begin in the lower bowel are called colon cancers. The colon is the last 4-6 feet of your intestine, an organ that helps eliminate solid waste from your body. The last 6 inches of the colon is called the rectum, and cancers that start here are called rectal cancers. Colon and rectal cancers will cause over 50,000 deaths in the United States this year; only lung cancer will kill more Americans. 75 % of colon and rectal cancers occur in persons without a family history of colon cancer. The good news is that 90 % of all colon and rectal cancers can be prevented with appropriate screening and removal of precancerous growths called polyps.
What causes colon cancer?
Colon cancer is a disease caused by an interaction of genes and certain lifestyle factors (smoking, diet, etc). Cancers of all types, including those of the colon, begin when genes that regulate how cells grow stop working normally. There are many factors that may increase the risk of developing colon cancer. To list a few: age over 50, having a previous adenomatous (pre-cancerous) polyp or colon cancer; a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease; a family history of colon or rectal cancer; African-American, Native American or Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity. Other lifestyle related factors associated with colon cancer include a diet that is high in red meats, obesity, physical inactivity, tobacco use, smoking, heavy alcohol use and type 2 diabetes. Men and women are at equal risk for developing colon cancer.
What are the warning signs of colon cancer?
Colon cancer often does not cause symptoms until it is far advanced, that is why it is important to have a colonoscopy. Talk with your doctor right away if you notice a change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, blood in or on the stool, cramping or steady stomach pain.
Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing colon cancer:
Maintain a healthy lifestyle.
- Be sure your diet includes plenty of fresh fruits or vegetables daily, and limit your eating red meat to less than 4 times a week. Follow a healthy diet as recommended by the USDA and noted on the food pyramid.
- Maintain adequate calcium with Vitamin D through your diet. Some sources of calcium include dairy products, fortified juices, green leafy vegetables, almonds, legumes, salmon, or tofu.
- Maintain adequate folate (folic acid) through your diet. Some sources of folate include fortified breakfast cereals and breads, green leafy vegetables, peas, asparagus, broccoli, orange juice, and some fruits.
- Exercise regularly.
- Limit alcohol intake.
- Do not smoke.
Undergo colon testing on a routine basis.
There are several tests that will screen you for cancer or polyps but the physicians at Minnesota Gastroenterology and most specialists recommend a full colonoscopy exam as the single best test and preventive measure. Speak with your doctor if you have questions about which test is best for you. Everyone should begin routine screening by age 50 (people with family histories of colon cancer or certain other conditions may need to begin at a younger age, African-Americans should begin at age 45). A full colon exam with colonoscopy is considered the gold standard for colon screening and is regarded as a tried and true method with minimal complications. It is the only colon cancer screening test that finds polyps and can remove them (to prevent their progressing to cancer) during a single examination. Most insurance companies and Medicare will cover the cost of colonoscopy for colon cancer screening.
Find out if a relative had colon cancer or polyps.
8-10 % of all colon cancers are inherited. If a close relative (parent, sibling, child, aunt or uncle, grandparent, cousin, niece or nephew) has had colon cancer or polyps, you may need special screening tests for you and your relatives. If more than one family member had colon cancer/polyps, or if anyone had cancer under the age of 50, your risk is increased substantially. Some people with a family history of colon cancer or polyps need to begin colon tests at an age earlier than 50. Be sure to discuss your family history with your physician.
- Contact your doctor or MN Gastroenterology specialists
- See the Minnesota Gastroenterology web site (www.mngastro.com )
- American Cancer Society 1-800-ACS-2345 (www.cancer.org/)
- National Cancer Institute (www.nci.nih.gov/)
- American Gastroenterological Association (www.gastro.org/)
- Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/cancer/screenforlife)
- Minnesota Cancer Alliance (http://www.cancerplanmn.org/ )
- United States Department of Agriculture (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/ )
- My Family Health Portrait (https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/fhh-web/home.action )
- Colorectal Cancer Risk Tool (http://www.cancer.gov/colorectalcancerrisk )
- Guide to help with Patient Questions about Colonoscopy Payments (pdf file)