Get a Colonoscopy? Do I Have To?

By Susan Hindman

Okay, let’s be honest: We know you don’t like the idea of having a colonoscopy. The prep is fairly disgusting, you lose nearly two days of work, and for some, it can take a few days for the digestive system to bounce back to normal. If you look at it that way, it’s no wonder so many people disdain the idea. But it’s a small price to pay if it saves your life. And it will.

Digest these numbers:

  • Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, accounting for almost 10% of all cancer deaths.
  • More than 90% of colorectal cancer occurs in both men and women over age 50.
  • If colon cancer is detected in its early stages, it is up to 90% curable.

Colon cancer begins in the large intestine (called the colon). It almost always starts with a small growth called a polyp. Polyps are benign, or noncancerous, growths on the inner wall of the colon and rectum. They are fairly common in people over age 50. Not all polyps become cancerous, but nearly all colon cancers start as polyps.

It usually takes about 10 to 15 years for these abnormal cells to develop into colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. So, through screening, there is time to catch these polyps and remove them before they have the chance to turn into cancer. Screening can also result in finding colorectal cancer early, when it is highly curable.

Some of the symptoms of colon cancer can include diarrhea, constipation, black malodorous stools, blood in stools, extreme fatigue, weight loss, and severe anemia.

The easy screening is the fecal occult blood test, which can detect invisible amounts of blood in the stool, a possible sign of several disorders, including colon cancer. The test is painless and can be done at home or in the doctor’s office along with a rectal exam. Studies show that if you have a fecal occult blood test every one or two years between the ages of 50 and 80, you can lower your chance of dying from colorectal cancer.

The presence of blood in the stool requires more testing, such as colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy, or barium study. Many deaths due to colorectal cancer happen because the cancers were found too late to be cured. If colorectal cancer is found early enough, usually it can be cured by surgery.

According to a report by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), risk for colorectal cancer is greatly influenced by diet and physical activity. In fact, the report noted, colorectal cancer was associated with more dietary and behavioral risk factors than any of the 17 other cancers studied.

Here are some changes you can make to reduce your risk of colon cancer:

  1. If you’re over 50, schedule a colon cancer screening. If you’ve read this far, this should be obvious. No more excuses! The American Cancer Society research indicates that by age 50, one in four people has polyps. Getting screened is simply an excellent colon cancer prevention method.
  2. Be aware of your family’s medical history. A history of polyps or certain cancers (such as colorectal, stomach, and liver) among family members should be your cue to get tested at an even younger age.
  3. Eat a balanced diet. Diets high in fat and cholesterol, especially from animal sources, have been linked to increased colon cancer risk. High-fiber diets have shown a protective effect. Incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your daily snacks and meals.
  4. Limit your intake of red and processed meats. The AICR noted that consuming more than 18 ounces, or a little over a pound, of red meat each week can significantly increase the risks for developing colorectal cancer.
  5. Stop smoking. It’s also a risk factor. Tobacco smoke transports carcinogens to the colon, and tobacco use appears to increase polyp size, according to the Beckstrand Cancer Foundation.
  6. Maintain an active lifestyle. Research from the American Cancer Society indicates that exercise may help reduce the risk of colon cancer. Exercise also tends to reduce the incidence of other risk factors for colon cancer, such as obesity and diabetes.

Published April 18, 2008

Susan Hindman
Silver Planet Staff

Reviewed By: Shehnaz Shaikh, MD

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