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Early Detection Can Prevent Colorectal Cancer

Experts say more than 50 percent of adults over 50 avoid potentially life-saving exams for one of the most preventable types of cancer, all because of embarrassment.

Bowel habits are not something most people talk about, so they choose to avoid the topic altogether and that avoidance can be deadly.

Colon or rectal cancer,  also known as colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer among both men and women and the second most deadly cancer in Americans. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 150,000 men and women will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2006 and about 37 percent will ultimately die from it.

The disease is also one of the only human cancers with a precancerous stage.

That means it can be discovered and removed before it ever becomes deadly. With proper screening, almost all colon and rectal polyps can be found before they turn into cancer.

Polyps are precancerous masses that form on the lining of the colon or rectum. Left untreated, certain polyps can become cancerous.

Men and women aged 50 or older should get regular screening exams such as a colonoscopy. This exam allows the physician to directly inspect the entire colon for potentially cancerous growths. People with a family history of colon polyps or colon cancer should begin screening at age 40, or earlier if young relatives are affected.

Unfortunately, only about 45 percent of Americans aged 50 or older get any type of screening or surveillance exam at the appropriate time.

Even if people have symptoms of colorectal cancer, the majority put off evaluation until the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, making it much more difficult, and occasionally impossible, to cure.

You can do several things to lower the risk of colorectal cancer:

  • Get the facts. Two of the primary risk factors for colorectal cancer are age and family history.
  • Make early detection a priority. Ninety-three percent of colorectal cancer cases are found in men and women aged 50 or older, so it is important that those who fall into this group get a periodic colonoscopy. The procedure takes 20 to 30 minutes and is done with sedation to minimize discomfort. People with a family history of colon polyps or colon cancer, and those who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, a condition in which the colon is chronically inflamed, are at higher risk and should be examined frequently.
  • Watch for physical changes. Colorectal cancer is usually a silent disease, it has no obvious symptoms. Consult your physician if you observe have bloody stool, persistent changes in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss or unusual stomach pain.
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle. Research has shown that diets high in fat, protein, meat and alcohol may increase colorectal cancer risk. It is better to eat a lower-fat diet filled with colorful and leafy vegetables (they offer the most beneficial nutrients), and high-fiber foods such as oatmeal, beans and citrus fruits. Fiber-rich diets help keep your digestive tract healthy, stabilize blood sugar levels and control cholesterol. Regular exercise and avoiding tobacco use will decrease colorectal cancer risk and also improve overall health.

This article originally appeared in UC Health Line (2/28/06), a service of the Academic Health Center Public Relations Department and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2006.

For more information:

Go to the Colorectal Diseases health topic.