Preventing Colon Cancer With Diet and Exercise
What You Can Do to Prevent Colon Cancer
Take a two-pronged approach to combat colon cancer: Get regular colonoscopy screenings to help detect colon cancer early, and follow key habits that can help decrease your risk of getting it in the first place.
By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Colon cancer is one of the most common cancers — and one of the most preventable, if precancerous polyps are found early. But like other forms of cancer, colon cancer can be deadly if it isn't detected until the later stages. Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.
This type of cancer is also known as colorectal cancer, a term used to describe cancer of the colon or rectum (the last six inches of the digestive tract before the anal opening). Colon cancer occurs when a growth in the lining of the colon or rectum becomes malignant.
"Fortunately, a screening procedure called the colonoscopy allows us to detect cancer at an earlier stage," says Benjamin Lebwohl, MD, a gastroenterologist at ColumbiaDoctors Eastside in New York City. "More importantly, it allows us topreventcancer by detecting and removing precancerous polyps during the procedure."
A colonoscopy allows your doctor to examine your colon through a long, flexible, lighted tube called the colonoscope. A video camera on the end of the colonoscope projects images on a screen. If your doctor sees polyps, he can remove them with an instrument that is passed through the colonoscope. The polyps that are removed are then sent to a laboratory where pathologists determine whether they are benign, precancerous, or cancerous. A colonoscopy takes about 30 minutes, during which you are sedated but awake.
"We recommend that screening colonoscopy be done starting at 50 for people at average risk for colon cancer," Dr. Lebwohl says. "There are some people who should be checked at an earlier age — those with a family history of colon cancer, those with inflammatory bowel disease, and those with colon cancer symptoms such as bleeding or anemia." Once you begin, the standard recommendation is to have a follow-up colonoscopy every ten years.
Other Ways to Detect Colon Cancer
There are other screening methods available to detect colon cancer. They include:
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy."This is similar to a colonoscopy except that only the bottom half of the colon is inspected," Lebwohl says. The preparation may not be as involved, but the procedure is probably not as effective as colonoscopy since the sigmoidoscope is not as long and it examines only half of the colon.
- Stool tests.Stool tests can detect microscopic amounts of blood, which may be a sign of colon cancer. These tests can be done at home, but to be effective they must be performed regularly, typically once a year. A positive result means you'll need to have a colonoscopy.
- CT colonography.This "virtual colonoscopy" involves using X-ray technology to inspect the colon. "This is a promising technology, but is probably less effective than colonoscopy at detecting small polyps," Lebwohl says. Also, a positive result means you'll need to have a colonoscopy.
Related: Is Colon Cancer Genetic Testing Necessary?
Preventing Colon Cancer
Lifestyle changes can help in the prevention of colon cancer. The most important choices include:
- Don't smoke."Although we usually think of smoking as damaging to the heart and lungs, smoking also increases the risk of developing colon cancer and dying from it," Lebwohl says. Quitting smoking may decrease the risk to that of the non-smoking population over time.
- Be physically active.Individuals who are physically fit have a 25-percent lower risk of colorectal cancer compared to those with a sedentary lifestyle, Lebwohl says.
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.A diet high in fruits and vegetables appears to reduce the risk of colon cancer by about half compared to a diet deficient in produce. Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts are especially beneficial. Decrease the amount of red meat in your diet, and cut back on meats that are cooked at high temperatures — such as fried, grilled, and broiled meats — as these may increase the risk of colon and rectal cancers.
- Take daily NSAIDs.Low daily doses of aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may reduce your colon cancer risk, but you should talk to your doctor first to determine if this is a good strategy for you.
- Don't ignore any symptoms.Colon cancer symptoms include bright red, black, or very dark blood in your stool, a change in your bowel movements (including change in the shape of the stool), discomfort when having a bowel movement, cramping in your lower abdomen, frequent gas pains, losing weight without dieting, and constant fatigue. See your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms for more than a few days.
- Know your health history.You are at increased risk for colorectal cancer if you have a history of colon cancer or precancerous polyps. Other factors that increase your risk include a family history of one or more parents, siblings, or children with colorectal cancer or precancerous polyps; a family history of multiple cancers involving the uterus, ovary, breast, and other organs; and a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
Talk to your doctor about the appropriate timetable for your colon screenings based on your medical history. You can prevent colon cancer by having regular check-ups, following healthy lifestyle habits, and promptly investigating any colon cancer warning signs.
Video: What is Colorectal Cancer?
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