Protect Yourself Against Colon Cancer

Colon cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States, is often preventable and highly curable.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s important to find out all about the illness that overwhelmingly affects people 50 and older. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 90 percent of people with the illness fall into that age category.

Often, the CDC says, people are unaware of the guidelines for getting tested and health-care agencies and hospitals are working to increase an understanding of the necessity of screening.

"It's important for people to understand that with proper screening, colon cancer can not only be detected early, but often can be prevented from developing," says Dr. Felice Schnoll-Sussman, a gastroenterologist and director of The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. (Editor’s note: Jay Monahan, Katie Couric’s late husband, died of colon cancer, and Couric herself underwent a colonoscopy on TV to raise awareness of the crucial need for this diagnostic and preventive procedure.)

Dr. Benjamin Lebwohl, a gastroenterologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, adds, "Despite the availability of highly effective screening tests, approximately one-third of Americans are not getting screened for colorectal cancer according to national recommendations. This translates to roughly 20 million adults, according to the CDC."

Here, from Schnoll-Sussman and Lebwohl, six facts that everyone should know to help reduce their risk of colon cancer.

•Get screened—it could save your life.

Screening can detect early cancers as well as polyps before they become cancer. Men and women should begin screening at age 50.

•Screening for colorectal cancer is effective.

The death rate from colorectal cancer has been falling in recent years, largely due to the adoption of widespread screening. Screening can detect cancer early, or can find polyps that could become cancer if left undiscovered.

•Screening is done when you feel well.

Colon polyps and early cancers often cause no symptoms. You could have a precancerous polyp or even colon cancer and not know it. This is why screening—before symptoms occur—is essential!

•Know your risk factors.

Certain risk factors may require screening to be performed at a younger age. These include inflammatory bowel disease, a personal or family history of colon cancer, large colon polyps, or certain hereditary conditions that can cause colon cancer, such as Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). Ask your doctor about when to start screening if you have any of these risk factors.

•Put down that cigarette and get moving.

There are a few lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk, such as quitting smoking, avoiding excess intake of red and processed meats, maintaining a healthy body weight, and exercise. Smokers also have an increased risk of developing colon cancer. Replace those cigarettes with colorful fruits and vegetables!

•Remember, colon cancer does not discriminate.

One in 20 people are diagnosed with cancer of the colon or rectum in their lifetime, and the disease affects both men and women. While those with a family history of colon polyps or cancer are at increased risk and need to begin screening at a younger age, the vast majority of people who develop colon cancer have no family history of the disease.

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