March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, and a chance to increase disease awareness, education, and support for one of the most deadly, and yet one of the most preventable cancers in the US.
As pointed out by the Colon Cancer Alliance, “the dangers, prevention, and treatment of colon cancer are still not widely known and are not discussed because colon cancer affects a part of the body that people often find embarrassing and are even forbidden to talk about”. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in men and women in the US. It affects approximately 150,000 people a year, of which one third will die of the disease. At least 85% of colorectal cancers are sporadic, that is, occurring in an individual without a family history of colon cancer, and the risk of colon cancer increases with every decade of life.
Interestingly, the incidence of this disease in individuals under age 50 (ie early onset disease) is increasing, with more than one tenth of diagnosed colorectal cancers occurring in this population. New research indicates that the incidence of early onset colon cancer among patients younger than age 50 has been rising at an annual rate of 1.5% per year, compared with an annual decrease of 3.1% among older individuals over the past decade. Furthermore, individuals with early onset disease tend to have larger tumors that are more likely to metastasize. Although the overall rate of cancer in this population remains low, the trend is alarming and warrants further investigation.
Colorectal cancer, however, remains one of the most preventable diseases in the US, because almost all colon cancers start out as a small growth called a polyp, which progresses to cancer over time. So if you have polyps, they can be removed before they turn into cancer.
How do you know if you have polyps? Most polyps do not have any signs or symptoms. The best way to find out if you have polyps is to have a doctor look inside your colon. This is done by a simple test called a “COLONOSCOPY”. During a colonoscopy, not only will polyps be detected, but they can also be removed at the same time. Being in a regular screening program with colonoscopies every 3-10years, depending on an individual’s own findings and family history, prevents this disease. Thanks to widespread use of colonoscopy, the incidence and mortality rates of this disease are decreasing among those older than 50 years, yet increasing in younger individuals, for whom screening use is limited and key symptoms may go unrecognized. Most people should be screened with colonoscopy starting at age 50. However, there are some risk factors for which screening should begin earlier in life. If someone has a family history of colon polyps or cancer, they should start the screening process earlier. It is important to discuss your health with your family members. You should ask your parents and siblings to see if any of them had colon polyps that were removed. This is important information in determining when to have a colonoscopy, but many people do not share this information readily.
Remember that most colon cancers can be prevented with screening and the BEST screening method is colonoscopy. Prevention is by having a colonoscopy to detect polyps, which grow in your colon, and have them removed before they turn into colon cancer. Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes and limiting fat intake can reduce the risk of colon cancer. Tobacco in any form and in any amount can increases the risk of polyp formation and development of colon cancer. Daily exercise and maintaining an ideal weight will independently and collectively decrease cancer risk.
March’s Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month provides the chance to break down barriers and open the door to communication about a highly preventable, treatable, and beatable disease. So start the conversation, spread the word, wear a blue ribbon, support awareness, and schedule colonoscopies for you and those you love. Let’s beat Colon Cancer!