There is a cancer that each of us can prevent. Still, it continues to attack over 130,000 Americans each year while claiming the lives of 55,000 more.
The problem is colon cancer.
“The reality is that colon cancer is a preventable disease - and the idea that so many people are still developing it means we have a long way to go in educating the public about the power each of us has to save our own lives,” says Dr. Andrew Dannenberg, director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Program at the Strang Cancer Prevention Center.
One of the reasons doctors remain so confident about preventing colon cancer is that they know more about how it develops than perhaps any other form of cancer. It begins, says Dannenberg, with tiny seed-size growths called polyps that can develop anywhere within the colon, an area that stretches from the small intestine to the rectum.
“By themselves, polyps are not dangerous,” Dannenberg says. “Left to linger, they can undergo cell changes that cause them to become malignant.”
While there is little we can do to stop polyps from forming - doctors think they are largely hereditary in nature - once diagnosed, removing them is all there is to removing the threat of colon cancer, Dannenberg says.
So, why aren’t more people taking advantage of the preventive care?
Doctors suspect it may have something to do with a fear of the methods used to find and remove the polyps - medical procedures known as sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy.
“Because they involve an invasion of the body in a way that can be uncomfortable for many people to deal with, they simply avoid it,” says Dr. Howard B. Saltz, a colon cancer expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
In both procedures, doctors rectally insert instruments that help them survey the colon, and in the case of a colonoscopy, which takes a deeper look into the body, remove any polyps that are found. While neither procedure is exactly a fun time, in reality they are no more uncomfortable than many of the routine tests each of us regularly take to prevent a variety of other health problems, such as those used to screen for a variety of gynecological cancers.
Which, in fact, brings us to our second point: Too many women are forgoing protection because they view colon cancer as a man’s disease. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“It is as big a threat to women as it is to men, and women should be as diligent about colon screenings as they are about mammograms and Pap smears,” Saltz says.
According to American Cancer Society, colon cancer affects more than 65,000 women each year and is surpassed only by breast and lung cancer in the number of lives it claims: more than 27,000 each year.
To start a colon cancer prevention program, doctors recommend a yearly non-invasive test that examines the stool for hidden blood, beginning at age 40 in both men and women.
By age 50, both sexes require a sigmoidoscopy every three to five years.
“This test looks at only the first 24 inches of the colon and is relatively easy to endure,” Saltz says.
Because colon cancer carries a high genetic risk, those with a first-degree relative with this disease should have the more complete colonoscopy exam every three to five years, beginning at age 40.
Doctors also suggest remaining vigilant in consuming a low-fat, high-fiber diet. Both, says Dannenberg, can offer significant protective effects, particularly for those with a family history of colon cancer.
“Between the dietary guidelines and regular screening, it’s not unrealistic to think we can completely eliminate the threat of colon cancer as a disease in our lifetime,” he says.