Colon Cancer Prevention: Everything You Need to Know
Colon cancer. Two scary words that instantly make your butt clench . But what exactly is colon cancer? How do you prevent it? Who’s most at risk?
RELATED: Prostate Health and Cancer Prevention Tips
Since colon cancer strikes where the sun don’t shine, it probably isn’t the first topic of conversation at the dinner table. But here’s the thing: This common killer is also one of the easiest cancers to catch and prevent. That’s why medical experts say guys need to start talking about colon cancer now. Here, they help us debunk some major myths about the disease.
MYTH: Only old people get colon cancer
Listen up, millennials: Colon cancer, aka colorectal cancer, is basically any malignancy that crops up in the final stretch of the digestive tract. With cases in people under 50 set to double by 2030, this isn’t just a concern for your golden years. “I have diagnosed colon cancer in 20- and 30-year-old patients,” says Dr. Jack Braha, a physician at Brooklyn Gastroenterology and Endoscopy in New York City. Indeed, while the overall incidence of colorectal cancer is declining nationally, today’s younger adults — those born around 1990 — have double the likelihood of developing colon cancer and quadruple the likelihood of rectal cancer compared with people born around 1950.
Colon cancer is the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death among men and women combined. The U.S. and the American Cancer Society predicts that in 2020, there will be 78,300 new cases of colon cancer in men — up almost 3,000 from a decade ago — with a total of 28,630 deaths resulting from the disease.
But here’s the thing: colon cancer is one of the easiest cancers to catch and prevent. It can be found and removed all while you’re taking yourself a nice little nap. And if caught early enough, chances are slim you’ll have any nasty effects from the disease.
MYTH: If you had cancer growing in your colon, you'd definitely know it
“Actually, sometimes there are no symptoms,” says Sharyn Worrall, senior manager of education and research for the advocacy group Fight Colorectal Cancer. “That’s why preventative screening is so important.”
Even when early signs are present, they often mimic super common digestive woes, says Michael Sapienza, CEO of Colorectal Cancer Alliance. Changes in bowel habits — think diarrhea or constipation — lasting longer than a month are red flags that many patients miss, he says.
Even more serious symptoms such as bloody poop are often dismissed as minor ailments. “Many people ignore bleeding because the Internet suggests that red blood is OK and only a sign of hemorrhoids,” Braha says. “It can be a sign of colon cancer. In my practice, red blood equals colonoscopy.”
Other signs that something isn’t right in colorectal country: persistent pain or discomfort in your abdominal area, as well as weakness or fatigue (beyond run-of-the-mill weakness and fatigue caused by reading the news in 2019).
Basically, says Braha, if Pepto, Preparation H and ibuprofen are on your weekly shopping list, talk to your doctor to find out what’s going on.
MYTH: Having no family history means you're safe
You've likely heard that a person's chances of getting colon cancer rise two- to threefold when a parent, sibling, or child has the disease. “The risk rises dramatically in those with a first degree relative with colon cancer,” Braha confirms. But having a healthy family doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.
“The lifetime risk ... is five to six percent in average-risk individuals,” Braha says. “That is one [person] out of 18 to 20.”
Sapienza agrees that family history is far from being the only consideration in risk: "genetics, lifestyle, and the environment can also influence a person’s cancer risk," he says.
Evidence suggests that colon cancer is correlated with diets high in red and processed meat (lamb, beef, pork, hot dogs), lack of physical activity, drinking too much alcohol, and smoking (even occasionally). Certain health conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, obesity, diabetes, ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease, may also influence colon cancer risk.
MYTH: You don’t need a colonoscopy until you turn 50
Back in the day, most doctors didn’t recommend screening before the quinquagenarian mark. That changed a few years ago as researchers learned more about colorectal cancer in younger adults. “Newer guidelines from multiple medical societies, including the American Cancer Society, suggest that we now start screening at age 45 and even earlier if there is a family history of colon cancer,” Braha says.
“Generally, screening for family members is recommended to begin 10 years prior to the survivor’s age of diagnosis,” says Worrall. “For example, if your loved one was diagnosed at age 52, family member screening would begin at age 42.”
MYTH: Colorectal cancer is not really preventable
“While screening is No. 1 way to prevent colorectal cancer, making healthy lifestyle changes can also help lower risk,” Sapienza says. Diets high in vegetables, fruits and other plant foods reduce risk for colorectal cancer. Groundbreaking, right? But that simplicity is the beauty behind it. In addition to these foods containing lots of dietary fiber and nutrients, plant foods are good sources of phytochemicals, which help protect cells in the body from damage that can lead to cancer.
And since diets high in red and processed meats have also been linked to colorectal cancer, try swapping out burgers and salami for grilled chicken and salmon more often.
Another smart move: Get off your ass. Research shows than an hour of brisk walking every day can slash the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 30 percent. So stop leaning on your Uber account and start hoofing it.
Dialing back the booze and cigarettes wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. According to the National Cancer Institute, people who regularly throw back 3.5 drinks per day are 1.5 times more likely to develop colon cancer than nondrinkers or occasional drinkers. And note: Long-term cigarette smoking is also associated with increased risk of colon cancer. (Just in case lung cancer isn’t enough to make you kick the habit.)
MYTH: Colonoscopies are literally a big pain in the ass
Yes, a colonoscopy means having a scope stuck up your butt. The good news is that you don't have to be awake when it happens. Aside from being a little drowsy afterward, there is no residual discomfort associated with the procedure whatsoever. None.
“Usually with sedation, the procedure is about 15 minutes and involves IV sedation, not [the] general anesthesia that people associate with surgery,” Braha says. “The sedation wears off quickly, and you can go for breakfast or lunch right after the procedure.”
That said, prepping for a colonoscopy probably isn’t your idea of a fun time — it generally requires swearing off solid food for 24 hours beforehand and completely purging your bowels using laxatives and a diarrhea-inducing drink. So ... a pretty good time. In addition to remaining close to a private bathroom, consider treating yourself by picking up some extra-plush toilet paper or gentle baby wipes to keep you comfortable during your epic poopathon.
MYTH: Colorectal polyps mean you definitely have cancer
It’s not unusual for doctors to find colorectal polyps during colonoscopies, which sends many patients into a panic. But rest assured, says Braha, “Polyps do not always equal cancer.”
Polyp is neutral term, and the growth can be malignant or benign. Says Worrall, “A polyp is a group of cells that grow together, and a colon polyp occurs when these cells grow on the inside of the colon or rectum.”
If left behind, however, some benign growths can develop into cancer, says Braha. That’s why physicians generally remove polyps quickly during colonoscopies. Regular screenings — at least every few years, depending on your health history and doctor’s advice — are then needed to ensure the polyps don’t recur.
For a detailed breakdown of polyp types and what they might mean for your health, check out the American Cancer Society’s comprehensive guide.The more you know!
MYTH: Colon cancer treatment will take years and might not even work
This isn’t necessarily true, and largely depends on the colon cancer stages. In about 39 percent of cases, colon cancer is detected in the localized, or early stages. According to Braha, treatment for those patients is usually quick and minimally invasive, focused on removing malignant polyps from the colorectal lining, and almost never requires the chemotherapy or radiation needed for later-stage cancers.
Overall, according to data from the American Cancer Society, the five-year colon cancer survival rate for cancer found at the local, or early stage is 90 percent. 90 percent! You’d play those odds for cash, so why not think of living a long, healthy life as the jackpot?
If you’re still on the fence about taking the colonoscopy plunge, just think about it like this: You get an uber deep juice cleanse, a professionally administered nap and an excuse-free bringe on your favorite food when you’re done. It’s basically a personal day that makes you live longer. Admit it: That sounds like fun.
You Might Also Dig:
Exercise Associated With a Lower Risk of Prostate Cancer Surprising Facts About Heart Health Study: Men With a Curved Penis Are at Higher Risk of Cancers