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By Ackerman Cancer Center


Colon Cancer: Know Your Risk Factors & Screening Options

Colorectal cancer is one of the five most common cancers in the U.S. and a leading cause of cancer deaths. And while it is not completely clear how specific risk factors lead to the development of colon cancer, multiple factors are known to increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Some colon cancer risk factors are impossible to avoid including family history, inherited syndromes, inflammatory bowel disease, race and ethnicity. These factors predispose an individual to the development of colon cancer, and while they can’t be changed, starting colonoscopy screening earlier than age 50 (the recommended age for screening in average-risk individuals) is advised.

Other lifestyle factors can also raise colon cancer risk, but the good news is these factors are within an individual’s control. They include:  

  • Diet: Consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains while limiting red and processed meats (hot dogs, lunch meats, sausage) can lower colorectal cancer risk. Preparing foods at high temperatures by frying or grilling can cause harmful chemicals to form that may increase cancer risk.
  • Alcohol consumption: Colon cancer risk rises with heavy alcohol use. Limiting or avoiding alcohol is recommended.
  • Smoking: Smokers are more likely than non-smokers to develop colorectal cancer.
  • Obesity: Being overweight raises the risk of colon cancer in both sexes, but particularly in men with large waistlines.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: An active lifestyle decreases the risk of polyps and colorectal cancer. Getting regular moderate exercise (that increases your breathing) may decrease your risk.

Ongoing studies are also looking at other potential causes of colorectal cancer. Doctors at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore recently discovered two digestive bacteria that produce a film on the colon before polyps form. Scientists are theorizing many colon cancers might be traceable to these specific bacteria. While more research is needed, cancer studies continue to shine new light on possible links.  

Signs & Symptoms
Symptoms of colorectal cancer don’t typically appear until the cancer has grown to advanced stages. When they do occur, they include:

  • Changes in bowel habits including diarrhea, constipation or narrow stools
  • Sensation of still needing to go after having a bowel movement
  • Bleeding from the rectum
  • Blood in the stool or darker than normal stools
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Unexplained weight loss

Many non-cancerous conditions can produce symptoms similar to those of colon cancer including hemorrhoids, infection, irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease. The only way to rule out colon cancer is to see your doctor.

Colorectal Cancer Screening
Regular colorectal cancer screening can save lives. The American Cancer Society recommends regular colorectal cancer screening for most people starting at age 50. Those with known risk factors should consult their doctor on when to begin screening.

Screening methods include:

  • Yearly fecal occult blood test (FOBT)
  • Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) performed yearly
  • FIT-DNA test every three to five years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy, every five years or three years, if done with FOBT or FIT
  • Colonoscopy every ten years
  • CT colonography or virtual colonoscopy every five years

Of the various test types, colonoscopy is the screening method used most often since small polyps discovered on the exam can be immediately removed and biopsied.

One study found that 31 percent of adults over the age of 50 have never been screened for colon cancer, while 33 percent of those between the ages of 60 and 70 have been screened only once and have skipped follow-up screenings.

Simply put, colon screening saves lives. If you haven’t been screened, talk to your doctor about colorectal cancer screening and schedule yours today.

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