You Asked and We Got to the Bottom of It: Questions and Answers about Colon Cancer and Colon Health
By: Vikil Girdhar, MD
Your questions, our answers!
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which is a great time to stress the importance of screenings and prevention. Below are answers to some of the most common FAQ’s regarding colon health, as well as answers to questions that were asked on our social media pages.
How common is colorectal cancer?
In the United States, colorectal cancer is the second most leading cause of cancer deaths. It is also the third most common cancer. The estimate for this year is that more than 56,000 Americans will die from colorectal cancer, and there will be more than 140,000 new diagnosed cases. On average, one in 22 men will develop colon cancer in their lifetime. More than 90% of diagnosed cases of colon cancer are people aged 45 years old and older (American Cancer Society).
What causes colorectal cancer?
In most cases, there is not a clear cause of colon cancer. However, it is known that colon cancer begins when the healthy cells that are located in the colon have a mutation to them. The mutated cells then grow, divide and eventually form tumors. If not treated, the mutated cells can grow and divide into other parts of the body, spreading cancer to other areas (Mayo Clinic).
What are the early symptoms of this type of cancer?
Colon cancer does not immediately show symptoms, and in some cases, it will not present any symptoms. In the case that there are symptoms present, they will typically be:
- A change of bowel habits; which can include diarrhea, constipation and a change of consistency in stools
- Abdominal discomfort; cramps, gas or a bloated feeling for an extended period of time
- Rectal bleeding; finding blood in stools
- Fatigue; a feeling of nausea or sudden weight loss
If any symptoms are present, visit a healthcare provider to get assessed. Experiencing these symptoms does not mean that it is colon cancer, but it could be a symptom of another health condition (Colorectal Cancer Alliance).
At what age should I start getting screenings?
It is recommended to start screening for colorectal cancer at the age of 50, then continue getting screened at regular intervals until age 75 (CDC). However, it is recommended for some under the age of 50 to be screened, if—
- they or a close relative have had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer.
- they have an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
- they have a genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome).
What are the types of screenings available for colon cancer?
Many different types of screenings are available that are used to find polyps or colorectal cancer. These include:
- Stool Tests such as fecal immunochemical test (FIT), the guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) and the FIT-DNA test. These tests are done in the comfort of home and then returned to the doctor or lab for testing.
- Flexible Sigmoidoscopy, where the doctor checks for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and lower third of the colon.
- Colonoscopy, like a flexible sigmoidoscopy, where the doctor looks for polyps or cancer inside the rectum but checks the entire colon rather than just the lower third. During the colonoscopy, the doctor can remove most polyps and some cancers.
- CT Colonography is a virtual colonoscopy where an x-ray and computer makes an image of the entire colon that the doctor can then analyze.
Who is at risk for colorectal cancer?
There are many different risks of developing colorectal cancer. Some risk factors can not be controlled; however, other risks can be monitored and avoided. Age is an example of a risk factor that can not be controlled. Chances of developing colon cancer increase for those above 50. Other uncontrollable risks include:
- a history of colon growth
- a history of bowel diseases
- a family history of colon cancer
- having a genetic syndrome, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
There are many risks factors that can be limited; ultimately, lowering the risk of developing colon cancer. Some controllable risk factors include:
- being overweight or obese
- heavy drinking of alcohol
- having type two diabetes
- consuming a diet high in processed foods or red meats
Being aware of the risk factors that are associated with colon cancer, living a healthy lifestyle, not smoking and limiting alcohol consumption can help lower the risk of colon cancer (Mayo Clinic).
What healthy activities can I do to lower my risk?
Any sort of physical activity can help decrease the risk of developing colorectal cancer. It is recommended to have at least 150 minutes of physical exercise every week. Consuming a well balanced and healthy diet can also help lower the risk of developing colorectal cancer as well as other diseases.
If a person does not have a family history of colon cancer, does that mean he/she is not at risk for the disease?
Unfortunately, just because there is no family history of colon cancer, it does not eliminate the risk of developing colon cancer. Having a family history of colon cancer creates a higher risk of developing colon cancer. If there is a known family history of colon cancer, it is recommended to get screened for colon cancer earlier than 50.
Should I change my diet to reduce my risk of getting colon cancer?
Eliminating bad habits and cutting back on a bad diet is beneficial to improving overall health as well as decreasing the risk of getting colon cancer. Reducing alcohol intake is a good place to start. Consuming less red meats and foods high in sodium (salt) is a great way to have a healthier diet. Foods with high amounts of sodium include processed meats like bacon, salami and hot dogs. Try to eat more fruits, and not as many starchy vegetables, such as corn. Consuming more fiber and drinking milk has been proven to help colon health.
How is colon cancer treated?
There are many different treatment options for colon cancer. Treatments depend on the stage of cancer, overall health, and location of cancer (Colorectal Cancer Alliance). There are three main types of treatment options for colon cancer, which include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Talk to a healthcare provider to see what the best treatment option is.
What can you do to help prevent colon cancer and stay healthy?
Unfortunately, there is not a way to completely prevent colon cancer. However, there are many preventable steps that can be taken to lower the risk of colon cancer. The best step is getting regular colon screenings. When screenings are performed, the doctor will look for cancer or pre-cancer for people without symptoms. Screenings can catch a problem early before it worsens into cancer over time. Controlling body weight, physical activity and diet can help prevent the development of colon cancer. Living a healthy lifestyle helps lower the risk of many health conditions. It is important to get regular physical exercise, maintain a healthy weight as well as eating a well-balanced diet (Mayo Clinic). Not smoking is another great way to prevent colon cancer. Not only does smoking increase the risk of colon cancer, but it also increases the risk for several other cancers and diseases (American Cancer Society).
Should I be taking probiotics regularly?
Probiotics can have many different health benefits. There are several kinds of probiotics, with many different purposes. Probiotics can improve the overall health for the digestive system, build immunity, oral health and blood pressure. However, most probiotic supplements do not go through the same testing and approval process that drugs do, so there is no guarantee that the probiotics will work for what they claim to. Talk to a health care provider to see what will work best (Harvard Health).
“About Colorectal Cancer.” American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/about.html
“Colorectal Cancer.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/basic_info/screening/tests.htm
Berkley Wellness. “Probiotics: Pros and Cons.” @Berkeleywellness, 28 Sept. 2018, www.berkeleywellness.com/supplements/other-supplements/article/probiotics-pros-and-cons
“Colon Cancer.” Carmella Wint and Jennifer Nelson, Healthline, 7 Feb. 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health/colon-cancer
“Colon Cancer.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 15 Nov. 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/colon-cancer/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20353674
Harvard Health Publishing. “Health Benefits of Taking Probiotics.” Harvard Health Blog, Harvard Health Publishing, 18 Aug. 2018, www.health.harvard.edu/vitamins-and-supplements/health-benefits-of-taking-probiotics
“Patient & Family Support.” Prevention, Research, Patient Support | The Colorectal Cancer Alliance | The Colorectal Cancer Alliance, www.ccalliance.org/