As you probably know already, March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. The last article by Dr. Jason Collins discussed the importance of colonoscopy and other screening tests as preventative measures to detect colon and rectal cancers. I am a physician assistant and work very closely with Dr. Collins. In this article, I will discuss lifestyle changes that may help prevent colorectal cancer, suggested frequency of screening and some of the warning signs of colon cancer.
Patients are often curious to know what they can do to help prevent colorectal cancer. There are definitely some lifestyle changes that an individual can make in an effort to prevent colon cancer. There are both risk factors and protective factors that have been identified. Risk factors include cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol intake and obesity. Protective factors include regular physical activity and weight loss. Some studies also suggest that a high fiber and low fat diet is associated with lowering the risk of colon cancer. Limiting the consumption of red meat and processed foods may likewise be beneficial.
Screening colonoscopy is typically recommended every 10 years starting at age 50. There are some factors that place an individual at higher risk. These include a family history of colon cancer or polyps, inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis, African-American race, and certain genetic syndromes. After the initial screening, the frequency of future screenings is based on whether a polyp or cancer is discovered during the procedure. A polyp is a benign growth that has the potential to turn into colon cancer over time. At least 25 percent of males and 15 percent of females will have polyps. In our practice, we detect precancerous polyps in greater than 35 percent of our patients who come in for screening.
There are several circumstances in which a colonoscopy should be performed outside of the normal screening schedule. The “red flags” of colorectal cancer include abdominal pain, blood in your stool, unexplained anemia, a change in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation or caliber of stool) or unintentional weight loss. These symptoms may also be associated with various other health conditions, so it is important to discuss any of these symptoms with your health care provider.
Ensuring that you get screened at the appropriate age is the best measure to prevent colon cancer since colorectal cancer often does not have any symptoms in the early stages. When colorectal cancer is diagnosed early, the survival rate and prognosis is much better relative to many other types of cancers.
There are many great resources online to help determine your risk for colorectal cancer, such as cancer.org and cdc.gov/cancer. If you are having any symptoms, do not put off a visit to your health care provider. A colonoscopy may save your life.
Colleen Farnum, PA-C, received her master’s degree in physician assistant studies from the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill. She works closely with Dr. Jason Collins at Glenwood Medical Associates in the Glenwood Springs office and in their office at The Silt Medical Center.