Colon Cancer: Find It Early

Expert advice on prevention, treatment

Colon Cancer: Find It Early

Unfortunately, colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States.  In 2009, 136,717 people in the United States were diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 51,848 (38 percent) people died from it.

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The best opportunity for curing cancer, once it develops, is to find it early and to remove it surgically.

Once colorectal cancer is advanced, five-year survival can drop from 90 percent to as low as 10 percent.

Since colorectal cancer can be prevented by regular screenings, it is imperative that we, as a society, do everything possible to prevent it from occurring at all.

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How to lower your colon cancer risk

To cut down your colon cancer risk, supplements and diet (what we call “primary prevention”) as well as regular screenings that include removing benign polyps (what we call “secondary prevention”) can help.

I suggest the following to my patients:

  • Eat a high-fiber diet. Diets with lots of fruits and vegetables provide you with fiber as well as vitamins and minerals, including antioxidants and free radical scavengers, that could lower your risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Take calcium and vitamin D. Keeping your calcium and vitamin D levels up with supplements and sunlight exposure, especially in the winter months, will decrease your risk of recurrent colorectal polyps and colorectal cancer, as well as decrease your risk of developing low bone mineral density.
  • Include folic acid. Folic acid, a vitamin found in leafy green vegetables, is important in lowering your risk of both colorectal cancer and heart disease. Sufficient folic acid, 400 micrograms, can be found in most multivitamin supplements.
  • Consider taking aspirin. Due to its harmful effects on the gastrointestinal tract (ulcers and gastritis), not everyone can take aspirin. But in those who can, regular aspirin use could lower your risk of both colorectal cancer and heart disease.
  • Get a colonoscopy. Removing  benign, but pre-cancerous, polyps from the colon prevents them from developing into cancer. The best way to detect and remove these polyps is through colonoscopy.

Colonoscopy: ‘Not so bad’

The thought of having a colonoscopy is dreadful to many people, but it is really not so bad.

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Here is what happens:

  1. The day before your colonoscopy–you are on a clear liquid diet and take a very powerful liquid, high-volume laxative that cleans out your colon completely. It is important to have a good prep so that the colonoscopist can see every part of your large bowel and remove even subtle lesions.
  1. The day of your colonoscopy–you come to the endoscopy suite with a driver, you are asked to sign a consent form saying that you are aware of all of the risks and benefits of the procedure and agree to proceed, and are given a sedative medication which allows for a comfortable examination.
  1. During your colonoscopy—you might fall asleep or ramble (remember, what is said in the endoscopy suite stays in the endoscopy suite), and nearly everyone forgets the procedure.Your doctor will work to examine the complete large bowel (also called the colon) and to remove any polyps he sees. These polypectomies occur right through the colonoscopy and are sent to the pathologist for review under a microscope.

Colonoscopy screening every 10 years starting at age 50 is covered by all insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid. It’s possible you may need more frequent colonocopies or need to start younger if polyps were detected in a previous screening, you have a family history of colorectal cancer or you have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

More information

Take Cleveland Clinic’s Free Online Colon Cancer Risk Assessment
Free Colonoscopy Fact Sheet
Free Colon and Rectal Cancer Treatment Guide
Hereditary Colon Cancer
Colon Cancer Overview
Risk Factors for Colon Cancer
How to Prevent Colon Cancer
Detecting and Treating Diseases of the Colon
Prognosis for People with Colon Cancer
Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP)
Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC)
Cleveland Clinic’s Cancer Care

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Bret Lashner, MD

Bret Lashner, MD, is a gastroenterologist, Director of the Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease and a Professor of Medicine at Cleveland Clinic.
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