Colon cancer is the third most common cancer for American men and women. Understanding more about this disease can help us make better lifestyle choices and be aware of warning signs.
Detection and symptoms
Rectal bleeding and painful bowel movements are the two most frequent symptoms that may indicate colon cancer, said Dr. David Lee, a Marshfield Clinic radiation oncologist.
To detect colon cancer, primary care providers often order a fecal occult blood test. Patients who report rectal bleeding are candidates for this test.
Lee said beginning at age 50, regardless of your family history of colon cancer, you should begin getting colonoscopies every ten years. A sigmoidoscopy, which screens only part of the colon, also could be used to detect colon cancer. If this is the route you choose, the test is recommended every five years.
Treating colon cancer
Lee said, on the cancer spectrum, colon cancer falls about in the middle in terms of curability and aggressiveness.
“However, each case is different,” he said. ”The prognosis varies depending on how early the cancer is caught.”
Radiation generally does not play much of a role in treating colon cancer. We treat the majority of colon cancers with surgery and chemotherapy, Lee said. Radiation treatment may come into play if a patient has advanced colon cancer.
Risk factors for colon cancer
Dr. Lee said North Americans are more likely than Asians to get colon cancer, possibly because of differences in diet.
The risk for colon cancer rises as people age, but it is possible for young adults to suffer from the disease. Some genetic conditions increase risk for colon cancer.
“Lynch syndrome causes patients to have defects in DNA repair, which predisposes these patients to get more advanced, aggressive forms of colon cancer,” Lee said. “A mutation in what is known as the APC (adenomatous polyposis coli) gene also predisposes patients to colorectal cancer.”
For patients with these genetic conditions, colon and rectal screenings should begin in their 20s.
Obesity is a minor risk factor for colon cancer, Lee said. More concerning, though certainly related, is a diet high in fat and preservatives. Lee recommends a low-fat, high fiber diet and daily exercise as ways to help decrease your risk for colon cancer.