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Guest Commentary | What is colon cancer?

By DR. LEANDRO MORAES - Physician with the Lee Health Cancer Institute | Feb 29, 2024

Dr. Leandro Moraes

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 106,590 new cases of colon cancer in the United States will present themselves this year, with about 46,220 new cases of rectal cancer.

If you exclude skin cancers, colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States. It is more common in older adults; however, physicians are seeing more young people with the diagnosis.

In recognition of March as Colon Cancer Awareness month, there are things everyone should know to prevent this potentially deadly disease. Screenings for colon cancer can be done to detect it early, which has the best survival rate. Knowing what symptoms and risk factors to look out for keeps patients vigilant about their own health.

What is colon cancer?

The colon is the large intestine or large bowel and the rectum is the passageway that connects the colon to the anus. Colon cancer causes the cells in the colon or rectum to grow out of control. Most colon cancers start as a growth called polyps on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Some of them can change into cancer over time, but not all of them will become cancer and the likelihood of them turning into the disease depends on the type of polyp. This can be determined during a screening.

There are a variety of reliable ways to detect colon cancer. This is why it’s important to find out if you have a family history of colon cancer to discuss it with your physician and get regular colorectal cancer screenings starting at age 45, as recommended by The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

If you have a family history of the disease, your physician may recommend you begin screenings before you turn 45.

Colon-cancer screenings

Finding colon cancer early means a better chance at recovery. Colon cancer screening tests can find precancerous polyps that can be removed before they turn into cancer.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults who are 45 to 75 years old be screened. If you have a family history or experience any symptoms and risk factors outlined below, discuss with your primary care physician whether you should be tested before you’re 45 years old. If no polyps are found, patients typically don’t need another screening for another 10 years.

The Task Force recommends several types of screenings, including stool tests, flexible sigmoidoscopy, a colonoscopy, or CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy). Your doctor can determine which one is right for you. You can schedule your own screening by visiting www.leehealth.org to learn more.

Colon cancer symptoms

Many people with colon cancer do not show symptoms right away. They begin to appear overtime, depending on how big the cancer is and where it’s located inside the large intestine, which is part of the digestive system, or gastrointestinal system.

Symptoms of colon cancer can include:

• A change in bowel habits, including more frequent diarrhea or constipation

• Blood in the stool

• Rectal bleeding

• Ongoing discomfort in your stomach, such as cramps, gas or pain

• A feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty all the way during a bowel movement

• Losing weight without trying

Risk factors associated with colon cancer

If you experience any of the symptoms outlined above and are in a risk category for colon cancer, please make an appointment with your physician as soon as possible. If colon cancer is detected at an early stage before it’s spread, there is a five-year survival rate at about 90%, according to the American Cancer Society.

Risk factors for colon cancer:

• A family history of colon cancer or polyps

• African Americans are about 20% more likely to get colon cancer, according to the American Cancer Society

• Some DNA changes that increase the risk of colon cancer run in families. Lee Health offers genetic testing. For more information, please contact your physician or visit leehealth.org.

• Inflammatory bowel diseases can increase colon cancer

• A low-fiber, high-fat diet. (However, research in this area has had mixed results.)

• Not exercising regularly

• Diabetes

• Smoking

• Drinking too much alcohol

• Radiation therapy for cancer directed at the abdomen

Lifestyle changes to help lower the risk of colon cancer

Making healthy lifestyle changes can help reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Eating a balanced diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains with needed vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants will ensure the body gets the nutrients it needs, and it can potentially help reduce the risk of colon cancer and other diseases.

Drinking alcohol in moderation or completely abstaining will help lower the risk. The standard is one drink a day for women and two for men.

Taking steps to quit smoking will also keep your body healthy.

Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day is another way to keep your body sharp.

While the number of people under age 50 getting colon cancer has been increasing, it is still most prevalent in adults older than 50 years old.

If you have an increased risk of colon cancer, are experiencing any potential symptoms, or would like more information, please make an appointment with your physician by visiting leehealth.org.

Dr. Leandro Moraes is a physician with the Lee Health Cancer Institute.