5 Facts Everyone Needs to Know About Colon Cancer
Colon cancer is incredibly common – but it’s one that often gets little attention from people until they’re diagnosed with it. With difficult-to-detect symptoms and screenings that often don’t begin until later in life, many people can develop colon cancer without even realizing it. And that’s what makes this cancer a silent killer.
Often, colon cancer is found and diagnosed at very late stages. But it’s surprisingly prevalent; one in 20 Americans will develop colon cancer. And colon cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death. The only way to improve this prognosis? Know the facts about this deadly type of cancer.
The following are five important facts that absolutely everyone should know about colon cancer.
1. Early Signs and Symptoms Can Be Subtle
You might expect the signs and symptoms of such a deadly cancer to be prominent and obvious. But unfortunately, colon cancer is actually the opposite.
The first symptoms of colon cancer are often very subtle. In fact, they can even seem like nothing more than an upset stomach or common illnesses like the flu.
When colon cancer first begins, small, non-cancerous clumps of cells form inside the colon. These become polyps, and those polyps can, over time, become cancer. And in their early stages, these polyps don’t produce many symptoms at all. People in the early stages of colon cancer typically experience no symptoms – which makes it difficult to detect.
So, when symptoms do begin, they often seem unrelated to cancer. The following are some of the most common symptoms that signal colon cancer:
- Changes in your bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation.
- Changes in the consistency of your stool.
- Rectal bleeding.
- Blood in your stool.
- Abdominal discomfort, like cramping, gas, or persistent pain.
- Unexplained weight loss.
2. Certain Risk Factors Can Increase Your Odds of Developing Colon Cancer
Colon cancer typically appears in older adults – so many people don’t worry about their risk until later in life. But unfortunately, certain factors can actually increase your risk of developing colon cancer. And they’re important to know well before you think colon cancer could strike.
If you know what the colon cancer risk factors are, you can work to change your lifestyle to eliminate anything that might up your odds of developing the disease.
The following factors can increase your risk of colon cancer, and they cannot be changed:
- Being Age 50 or Older: Although colon cancer can happen at any age, most people with this type of cancer are over age 50.
- A Personal History of Colon Cancer: If you’ve already had colon cancer, you have an increased risk of developing it again.
- Being African American: African Americans have a higher risk of colon cancer.
- A Personal History of Polyps: If your colon is prone to developing noncancerous polyps, your risk increases.
- Having Other Inflammatory Intestinal Conditions: Living with other conditions that affect the colon, like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, can increase your risk.
- A Family History of Colon Cancer: Your risk for colon cancer increases if you have blood relatives who’ve developed the disease.
However, there are risk factors that are within your control. Though the following risk factors increase your odds for colon cancer, they may be aspects of your life that you can change to lower your risk:
- A Low-Fiber, High-Fat Diet: Your eating habits can potentially cause an increased risk of colon cancer, especially if you eat a lot of red or processed meat.
- Living a Sedentary Lifestyle: If you aren’t active and get little physical activity, you may see an increased colon cancer risk.
- Being Diagnosed with Diabetes: Those with diabetes or insulin resistance are at an increased risk.
- Smoking and Drinking: Smoking regularly and drinking heavily can both increase your risk for developing colon cancer.
- Being Obese: If you’re obese, you have both an increased risk of developing colon cancer and an increased risk of dying from the disease.
3. Early Detection Could Improve Your Odds of Survival
Colon cancer is a difficult disease to detect. With few early symptoms and subtle growth over time, it’s tricky to determine whether or not you have colon cancer. In fact, the only way to be certain is with a screening.
Screenings are how doctors find colon cancer. They’re the best way to find the polyps that could be inside your colon – and pinpoint which polyps might become cancerous. And while screenings are often performed on older adults, the American Cancer Society recommends that they should start at age 45.
Getting regular screenings is the only way to prevent colon cancer and detect it early. If found early, your prognosis for surviving colon cancer improves.
And fortunately, getting regular screenings is easy. There are a few different ways doctors can screen you:
- With a stool-based test that examines different levels of material and chemicals in your stool.
- Visual exams, like a colonoscopy, CT colonography, or flexible sigmoidoscopy, that allow doctors to examine your colon and rectum.
With these screenings, you can catch any potential problems or cancerous areas as soon as possible. If you exhibit some of the risk factors for colon cancer, your doctor may recommend earlier or more frequent screenings to keep a close eye on your health.
4. There Are Ways to Treat Colon Cancer
If you develop colon cancer, you have options. While colon cancer takes the lives of many people each year, treatment options do exist.
The type of treatment that’s best for each individual depends on the stage of the cancer, its location, and any other health concerns that might be present. But it all depends on each patient’s particular case.
Treatments for colon cancer include a number of different methods, such as surgery, drug therapy, and chemotherapy and radiation.
Surgery is a common treatment approach for colon cancer. Doctors can remove polyps and other affected areas of the colon. It’s especially effective if your cancer is small and localized. When colon cancer is more advanced, doctors may remove parts of the colon that have become cancerous, along with lymph nodes that are affected.
Chemotherapy is used to treat many different types of cancer. Drugs are given to destroy cancer cells, making chemotherapy a common treatment when cancer has spread. Chemotherapy can be used to kill remaining cancer cells after surgery or to shrink a tumor before surgery.
Radiation therapy uses different forms of energy – like x-rays and protons – to kill cancer cells. It can be targeted to different areas of the body, is able to shrink cancerous growths prior to surgery, and can be used to kill remaining cancer cells after other treatments. Radiation is often used in combination with other treatment options.
Targeted Drug Therapy
Colon cancer can also be treated with targeted drug therapy. This option uses specific drugs or medications to kill cancer cells. It’s often used along with chemotherapy, and targeted drug therapy is often a treatment for advanced colon cancer.
Immunotherapy is another type of drug treatment. But, instead of using medication that targets cancer cells, immunotherapy actually uses the immune system. The body doesn’t attack cancer because cancer tricks the body’s immune system into ignoring it – but with immunotherapy, your body can fight back. This is another treatment that’s often used for advanced stages.
5. A Low-Fat, High-Fiber Diet Can Help Prevent Colon Cancer
You might be able to decrease your risk for colon cancer by changing your diet. The right nutrition, along with a healthy diet, is able to prevent many different diseases and ailments. And according to research, colon cancer is one such condition.
If you’re looking to lower your risk of colon cancer and improve your eating habits, follow a diet that sticks to these key areas:
- Low in Fat: Many people consume fat by eating red or processed meats. But these foods can increase your risk of colon cancer, as they require acids that can encourage tumor growth. Instead, eat lean meats and aim for low-fat foods.
- High in Antioxidants: Antioxidants can boost your body’s ability to defend against cancer-causing free radicals. By eating foods high in antioxidants, like carrots and leafy greens, you can increase that defense.
- High in Fiber: Fiber benefits your overall health. Eating a lot of fiber, like whole-grain cereal and bread or berries and beans, can help your digestive system work more efficiently and smoothly.
Ultimately, keeping an eye on your health as a whole can be a solid defense against colon cancer. If you make sure to get early – and regular – screenings as recommended and take care of your body, you can take charge of your health in positive ways.