Smart Steps to Prevent Colorectal Cancer
Colorectal cancer refers to tumors found in the colon (the large intestine) or in the rectum. It is the third leading cause of cancer in men, and is found more frequently in countries where diets are high in fat.
Experts believe that when fat is metabolized by the body, it may break down into chemicals that can cause cancer.
Many cases of colorectal cancer develop from polyps, or non-cancerous growths in the colon. Polyps themselves are not life-threatening, but if they are not removed, they may become cancerous over time. Fortunately, polyps are usually found (and can be easily removed) during a preventive screening exam called a colonoscopy.
Are you at risk?
Your risk for colorectal cancer may be increased if you:
- Have a family history of colorectal cancer (although in the majority of cases, patients have no family history of the disease)
- Inherited a colon cancer syndrome or cancer-causing genetic defect from one or both parents
- Consume a high-fat and/or low-fiber diet
- Have had chronic ulcerative colitis or primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC)
Warning signs and symptoms
Many of the symptoms associated with colorectal cancer may also be caused by a range of other conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Symptoms may include:
- Change in bowel habits
- Narrow stools, diarrhea or constipation
- Red or dark blood in stool
- Unexplained weight loss
- Abdominal pain, cramps, or bloating
If you experience any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your physician as soon as possible. In most cases, cancer is not the culprit, but it is important to determine what is causing them.
Prevention and screening
As with most cancers, early detection is key. The following procedures can help detect colorectal cancer in its beginning stages:
- Digital rectal examination and stool occult blood testing: Men age 40 and older should have an annual digital examination by a physician and have their stool tested for hidden or “occult” blood. Colorectal tumors often bleed slowly into the stool, and the blood is not visible to the naked eye.
- Colonoscopy is considered the “gold standard” for colorectal cancer screening. During this procedure, the physician inserts a long, flexible viewing tube into the rectum to inspect the lining of the colon. If polyps are found, they may be removed and tested to determine whether they are cancerous. In some cases, the polyps are found to be precancerous; removing precancerous polyps can help prevent the development of colorectal cancer. Starting at age 50, men should have a colonoscopy every three to five years. If you have a higher risk of colorectal cancer, your physician may recommend that you have a colonoscopy at a younger age and/or have them more frequently.
- A Barium enema x-ray is another screening exam that may also be used to detect growths in the colon. In this procedure, the patient is given an enema with a chalky liquid that contains barium, and x-rays are taken of the colon and rectum. The barium outlines the colon on the x-rays, and abnormal growths appear as dark areas.
Your diet may also play an important role in preventing colorectal cancer. Reduce your intake of unhealthy fats, such as fatty meat, oils, salad dressings, fast foods and junk foods. And, increase your fiber from whole grains, fruits and vegetables; in addition to being much healthier for you, high-fiber foods help move waste and potentially cancerous substances through your colon faster.
- If you are age 40 and over and have not had a digital rectal exam and occult blood test, make an appointment with your physician. If you need a referral, call 1-800-SCRIPPS (800-727-4777) or see our doctor finder.
- Rethink how you eat. Scripps offers to help you make healthier choices.