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Get Screened: For the Health of Your Colon

By Sheryl Kraft

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Go ahead and blame former President Clinton for calling attention to colon cancer by declaring this month National Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Back in 2000, he knew what he was doing: it's an opportunity to spread colon cancer awareness.

I know … it's not the sexiest topic, but we all need to think about our colons, especially once we hit 50.

That's when it's recommended you start routine screening, unless you're at increased or high risk for colorectal cancer; then, you need to talk to your doctor about starting earlier.

You may be at increased risk if you or a close relative have had polyps or colorectal cancer; you have inflammatory bowel disease or certain genetic syndromes like familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (known as Lynch syndrome).

Some important colorectal (aka colon cancer) facts

  • Colorectal cancer develops in the colon or rectum (also known as the large intestine)
  • It's the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the third leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the United States.
  • The American Cancer Society estimated that 136,830 people would get diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014 and 50,310 would die from the disease.

What's most important to know: you need to get screened. To me, that's obvious. Colon cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, and screening is a way to reduce your risk. If it's found early, colon cancer is one of the most treatable cancers.

But unfortunately, in 2010, only a little more than half of those aged 50 or older reported having screening consistent with current guidelines, according to the National Health Institute Survey. It's estimated that if everyone 50 or older got screened regularly, up to 60 percent of deaths from colon cancer could be avoided.

Screening is so important because early colorectal cancer usually has no symptoms. If there are symptoms, here's what you should look out for:

  • Bleeding from the rectum or blood in the stool
  • Abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas or pain, that persists
  • Change in bowel habits, including diarrhea, constipation or a change in consistency of your stool
  • Feeling that your bowel doesn't empty completely
  • Losing weight for no apparent reason
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Dark or black stools

In addition to screening, you can do these things to lower your risk:

  • Exercise. A recent review of scientific literature found that the most physically active people have a 25 percent lower risk of colon cancer than the least active people. The American Cancer Society and the CDC recommend at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk for colon cancer; this is especially true for men. The most important risk factor is having that extra weight around your waist. Abdominal obesity is a more important risk factor than is overall obesity. 
  • Eat a healthy diet. Research is ongoing, but what is known is that a high consumption of red and/or processed meats put you at increased risk. To reduce your risk, increase your intake of dietary fiber, cereal fiber and whole grains. Moderate intake of fruits and veggies can be protective, too. Eat at least 2 1/2 cups each day.
  • Get your dairy. There is a protective effect (regardless of milk fat content) with a higher consumption of dairy product, milk and calcium.
  • Limit alcohol. It's estimated that people who average between two and four alcoholic drinks a day throughout their lifetime have a 23 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer than those who consume less than one drink a day.

When you're ready to discuss screening with your health care provider (and I'm hoping you are), there are many options to explore. Besides a standard (or optical) colonoscopy, there's high-sensitivity fecal occult blood tests, sigmoidoscopy, virtual colonoscopy, double-contrast barium enema and Colorguard, a new test that was approved by the FDA in 2014.

You might also want to read:
Colon Cancer Screening: Don't Delay It
Colon Cancer Rates Rising Among Young American Adults
When You Just Can't Go: Constipation 101


I just had my second colonoscopy and know full well the importance of it. My husband's uncle died from colon cancer; he never had a colonoscopy.

This is an important subject to write about and I am so glad you did just that, Sheryl.

I love that you are promoting colon cancer screenings! My husband was diagnosed at 49 with stage two colo-rectal cancer detected by routine screenings. In two weeks we are celebrating that big five year mark, cancer free. All thanks to routine screenings. So, thank you, thank you, thank you for spreading the word. Screening is such a no-brainer!

Thank you for the reminder. I am over 50 and have not had one yet. I wonder why the alcohol, interesting I will look it up. Not that I drink that much one to two drinks a month.

Yes, it isn't sexy -- but yes, it's worth it to get a colonoscopy. I've lost three good friends to colon cancer. Thanks for reminding us.

I got my first colon screening last year, and it wasn't that bad. As they say, the prep is worse than the procedure. But even the prep wasn't as bad as some people make it out to be. And there were no polyps and no signs of diverticulosis either. Woo hoo.

I had no idea dairy made a difference here. Time to drink up!

I have had two colonoscopies. Time again for another, per my gyno a few weeks ago.Thank you for the reminder to schedule it.

This is such an easy thing to do and life saving.

Not something that anyone looks forward to but I know it is SO important. My hubby is in his early 50's and I don't think he has done a screening yet - must get on that STAT!

Thanks so much for the informative post. The sister of a dear friend of mine passed away two weeks ago from colon cancer. She was only 37. Her death has been a jarring eye opener for so many people who knew her or even heard about her struggle. I didn't know the risk factors you listed above. Will definitely keep those in mind.

It's great that you're raising awareness of this. It took me a whole year to get up the nerve to go for a colonoscopy and it turned out to be a big non-event (thank goodness!). We should be glad that this procedure exists and that it can save lives.

Nobody wants to talk about this, but we should all be aware. Thank you for drawing our attention to our colons.

Good wakeup call, since this runs in my family!

I recently had a second colonoscopy which found a polyp that could not be removed during the colonoscopy. I then had to have a section of colon removed and adjacent circulatory and lymph and they also took my appendix out--it was on that section of my colon. The good news was all was clear with my colon and lymph nodes, but they found a small cancerous tumor on my appendix! So, you never know and just a huge reminder that colon screenings are relatively easy and can really catch things early. Don't miss your screenings!

I am grateful I didn't put mine off --was a bit behind the recommended schedule--but I did it. Don't Wait.

I got my first one 5 years EARLY because they were going to do another procedure and figured why not? 100% perfect on the inside, so I'm good to go for many more years.

Very good tips for prevention of colon cancer, including the need for more physical activity..

Good reminder. I'm due for a screening.


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