Since 2000, March has been the officially designated month for colon cancer awareness.
Colon cancer is second only to lung cancer in the number of deaths it causes in the U.S. each year. However, people are less aware of colon cancer, perhaps because it affects parts of the body that we don’t feel as comfortable talking about.
This limited awareness means that there is less research funding for colon cancer and people are less aware of the risks — and of the actions that should be taken to reduce the risks of colon cancer.
The colon is also known as the large intestine. It’s about five feet long, attached to the small intestine on one side and the rectum on the other, wrapping around the abdomen. The colon plays an important part in the digestive process, helping to remove what the body needs from food and preparing wastes to leave the body.
The Colon Cancer Alliance has an online quiz that can help you get a sense of whether you might be at a higher risk of colon cancer. If so, you should begin screening sooner than other people. However, screening should begin at age 50 for most people, including those with fewer risk factors.
What are the risk factors for colon cancer?
- Genetics is a major factor for colon cancer. People with a family history of the disease are far more likely to develop colon cancer than those who do not have a family history of colon cancer.
- Eating lots of red meat or a generally high fat diet is associated with higher rates of colon cancer, while eating more vegetables is associated with a lower risk.
- Smoking and drinking higher amounts of alcohol are both associated with a higher risk of colon cancer.
- Regular exercise is associated with a lower risk of colon cancer.
- Obesity and diabetes are associated with increased risk of colon cancer.
As you can see, a healthy lifestyle may reduce the risk of colon cancer. However, one of the most important things you can do is to have regular colon cancer screenings. Ask your health care provider about your specific needs, and if you’re over 50, arrange for a colon screening as soon as possible.
Getting screened is the first step in preventing colon cancer. Several screening options are available, including colonoscopy and flexible sigmoidoscopy. Regular colonoscopies should begin at age 50 for people with an average risk for developing colon cancer.
If you have a family history of polyps or colon cancer, many physicians may recommend getting your first colonoscopy at age 40 or even earlier depending on your history. Some recent studies indicate that African-Americans may need to start screening at age 45. More frequent and earlier screening is recommended if you are at high risk for colon cancer.