While many of us don’t think about our colon health in the same way we may think of our heart or joint health, it’s an important organ that we should be keeping an eye on. Your colon is the longest and final part of the digestive tract, and is an essential feature of our digestive system.

Risk Factors for Colon Cancer

Colon cancer is a risk for older adults, but it can strike people of any age.

The causes of colon cancer are still relatively unknown. However, gastrointestinal medical oncologist, Tracy Proverbs-Singh, M.D., points out that there are risk factors to keep in mind:

  • Age: Regular screening is recommended starting at age 45. While most cases of colon cancer happen in those over 50,  cases of colon cancer are rising in those under 50.
  • Race: African-Americans have a high incidence of colon cancer.
  • Medical History: Those with a history of noncancerous polyps, or a previous colon cancer diagnosis, are at increased risk. Additionally, family history of colon cancer is also a risk factor.
  • Inflammatory Intestinal Conditions: Conditions like Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's Disease are examples of chronic inflammatory diseases of the colon and they can increase the risk of colon cancer.
  • Inherited Syndromes: Some gene mutations and inherited syndromes, such as adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and Lynch syndrome, can increase the risk of colon cancer.
  • Diabetes: Those with diabetes have a heightened risk of developing colon cancer.
  • Sedentary Lifestyle: People who are inactive have a higher likelihood of developing colon cancer, so engaging in regular activity may decrease the chance of colon cancer.
  • Obesity: Obesity can increase the risk of colon cancer.
  • Smoking and Alcohol: Heavy use of these substances may increase the likelihood of colon cancer.

Potential Symptoms of Colon Cancer

It begins as a clump of noncancerous cells (called polyps) on the inside of the colon. These polyps can become cancerous over time. “The challenge of polyps is that they often produce few, if any, symptoms, especially in the early stages,” explains Dr. Singh. However, our expert notes that there are a few potential symptoms to keep in mind:

  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas or pain
  • A feeling that your bowel doesn't empty completely
  • A persistent change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation, or a change in the consistency of your stool
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Weakness or fatigue

Prevention and Screening

Doctors recommend regular colon screening tests, starting at age 45, which allow for the identification and removal of polyps before they become cancerous. For those that possess any of these risk factors for colon cancer, screenings should begin before age 45. Besides screenings, there are preventative measures to take to prevent colon cancer:

  • Maintain a healthy BMI
  • Engage in regular physical activity
  • Eat a diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all
  • Stop smoking

Colon cancer may be prevented through a healthy lifestyle, but regular screenings will help ensure any cancerous cells are caught early.

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