There are few people in this world who enjoy colonoscopies. It’s not so much about the actual procedure as it is patients dreading the colonoscopy prep. For starters, you must prepare your bowels a day in advance so your doctor can visualize the colon. This requires regular trips to the restroom, which can become cumbersome for patients.
This process, regardless of how inconvenient or uncomfortable, is necessary for colon health. The statistics tell us colorectal cancer, defined as cancer occurring in the colon or rectum, are among the most common in the United States. But because of how slowly it moves and develops, it’s frequently caught in its early stages, meaning you may be able to combat or delay its progress based on the decisions you make and the life you live.
As a way to recognize Colon Cancer Awareness Month in March, we’ve put together helpful information on the importance of colon health, tips that will aid in maintaining digestive bowel health, and guidelines for colon screenings.
The Importance of Colon Health
For starters, let’s explore what a colon does and why it’s important to your overall and digestive health. Your colon reabsorbs fluid, maintains the body's hydration, and processes waste. If your body is a highway, think of the colon as the final destination in the digestive system.
While people may falsely associate colorectal cancer with only men, mainly due to rectal exams with prostate health, the truth is colon health is important regardless of gender. It’s the third most common type of cancer and is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. The American Cancer Society estimates nearly 150,000 colorectal cases for 2020 (104,610 new cases of colon cancer and 43,340 new cases of rectal cancer).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2016-18 showed a 1.4% increase (67.4% to 68.8%) in people ages 50 to 75 who received colorectal cancer screenings, which amounted to a 4.2 million increase. While these figures show positive developments, the reality is about 25% of adults aren’t screened as recommended. In fact, 21.7 million Americans ages 60 to 75 have never been screened. The 50 to 64 age range is even more guilty, as 81% of people who fall in this category have never been screened.
Colon health isn’t just tied to cancer, either. There are many colon diseases, including several benign issues. For benign diseases, maintaining healthy bowel function can help prevent certain ailments such as diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, or anal fissures.
In any event, contact your doctor if you encounter any of the following signs or symptoms:
- Persistent diarrhea or constipation
- Bleeding from rectum
- Dark, tarry stools
- Change in the caliber/shape of stool
- Pain with bowel movements
Simple Tips for Colon Health
Colorectal surgeons recommend you have at least one soft bowel movement daily, drink plenty of water, avoid straining, and spend no more than five minutes at a time attempting to have a bowel movement. Leave your phone on the couch or at your desk so you’re not tempted to stay on the toilet longer than you should.
High-fiber diets are essential for good colon health. Load up on fruit such as strawberries, pears, avocados, apples, raspberries, and bananas. Make sure you eat your vegetables, too. Steam or roast broccoli, carrots, beets, and Brussels sprouts with your dinner. Legumes such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils are also rich in fiber, as are whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
You’ve likely seen products that advertise ways to improve colon health, either through a colon cleanse diet or supplements, or hydrotherapy, a procedure where water irrigates the colon. It’s important to know there’s no scientific evidence behind these applications. Plus, you could subject yourself to unintended side effects such as cramping, bloating, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. You’re also more at risk for dehydration or tears to your rectum.
There isn’t a clear sense of what causes colon cancer. However, family genetic disorders such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC or Lynch syndrome) can increase your chances of developing colon cancer. In other cases, poor luck is to blame.
Avoid smoking, drinking alcohol in excess, and limit foods that are high in processed, saturated fats as they can increase your risk of colon cancer. In addition, chronic colon inflammation can heighten your risk, which means you should stay on top of screening if you have diseases such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
Colon Cancer Screening Guidelines
Different sources recommend different age specifications for colon cancer screening. For example, the CDC cites 50 as the age to get tested, although the American Cancer Society recommends screening after 45.
Once you reach either of these thresholds, you should have a colonoscopy screening once every 10 years (this can be more frequent depending on findings during colonoscopy) or a stool study with a limited colonoscopy. There are three types of stool studies: guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT); fecal immunochemical test (FIT); and FIT-DNA test. You can also receive a virtual CT colonography or a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years.
In certain cases, your family history may require earlier screening before you turn 45 or 50. Talk to your doctor for specific guidance as each case is different.
Why is screening so important? Colon cancer is the only cancer you can eliminate with early detection since it grows slowly and takes nearly 10 years for a polyp to turn into cancer. Early polyp detection doesn’t mean you have cancer, but that polyp would progress to cancer if it goes unnoticed. Therefore, early polyp detection can eliminate your risk for colon cancer.
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