Colorectal cancer — cancer of the large intestine and rectum — is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, there will be more than 140,000 cases of colorectal cancer this year. But there is reason for optimism as cancer screenings, lifestyle changes and added awareness can decrease your risk for colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer often begins as small non-cancerous polyps that may become malignant over time. Colorectal cancer screenings can detect the polyps early and prevent the disease from developing.
Health care professionals recommend screenings for colorectal cancer beginning at age 50. If the disease runs in your family, a good rule of thumb is to start screenings ten years prior to your family memberís age of diagnosis. For example, if your aunt was diagnosed at 53 years old, begin your screenings at 43.
There are various screenings available, so please discuss the options with your health care provider.
The most common symptoms of colorectal cancer are:
- Blood in the stool
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation
- Persistent abdominal discomfort or pain
- Unexplained weight loss
Although colorectal cancer may not produce symptoms, you should contact your health care provider if you have concerns or if you experience any of these symptoms.
The exact cause of colorectal cancer remains unknown, but there are proven risk factors for the disease. You can change your lifestyle to avoid certain risk factors, but there are some that you cannot prevent.
Unavoidable risk factors include:
- Family history of colon polyps and cancer
- Race (African-Americans are at greater risk)
- Inflammatory intestinal disorders like ulcerative colitis or Crohnís disease
Avoidable risk factors include:
- Lack of exercise
- Unhealthy diet
- Drinking alcohol in excess
Colorectal cancer screenings are extremely important, but there are also simple lifestyle changes you can make to decrease your risk.
- Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These foods are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that can help prevent cancer. Conversely, red meat and processed meats are linked to colorectal cancer, so limit your intake of these foods.
- If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that women drink no more than one alcoholic beverage per day, and men, no more than two.
- Stop smoking. If you smoke, speak with your health care provider about ways to quit. There are many free smoking cessation resources available, such as smoking-cessation.org.
- Stay active. Try to incorporate at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise into your daily routine.
- Manage your weight. Obesity and excess belly fat are significant risk factors for colorectal cancer. The best way to shed pounds or maintain a healthy weight is through proper diet and exercise.
Start decreasing your risk of colorectal cancer today. With a plan that includes timely screenings and healthy lifestyle choices, youíll be on your way to a healthier, cancer-free colon.
Takis H. Panagiotakis, M.D., is a Mayo Clinic Health System gastroenterologist and hepatologist. For more information, please go to www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org.
Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato will host a Speaking of Health presentation on colorectal cancer in the lower level conference center of the hospital on Wednesday, March 13 at 7 p.m.
Health & Fitness coverage is supported by Mayo Clinic Health System, preserving the health and well-being of southern Minnesota communities.