Don’t Neglect Your Inner Beauty

John Kidwell, M.D.

To be clear, I am talking about your colon. As this month is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness month, and as most of you reading this have a colon, it seems appropriate to discuss some important points on the matter that could benefit you and those you love.

You can decrease your likelihood of getting colon cancer. We know this. We have the numbers. Why is this so important? I’ll tell you.

  • It’s the 3rd most common cancer
  • It’s the 3rd leading cause of cancer-related deaths
  • There are approximately 100,000 new cases of colon cancer yearly, with more than a million individuals being affected by colorectal cancer each year
  • Its incidence is higher in industrialized countries (like ours)
  • 1 in 20 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer in their lifetime

Naturally, with a disease so prevalent, it is worthwhile for individuals to know a bit about colon cancer, and even more importantly, the steps that can be taken to minimize the likelihood of acquiring the disease.

What causes colon cancer?  

Colorectal cancer arises from colon polyps. Polyps are abnormal clumps of tissue that can arise from the inner lining of your intestines. These polyps, known as adenomas, can be benign (not cancerous). However, these adenomas can transform into cancer, given enough time. If these polyps are removed before they have an opportunity to turn into cancer, then your likelihood of developing colon cancer has decreased. It is of the utmost importance to identify whether you have colon polyps, and if so, that they be removed. This is achieved through screening with a colonoscopy.  

Over the last three decades there has been a decline in deaths due to colon cancer. This is in large part due to improved screening, where polyps are identified early and removed, or colon cancers are found early and removed before they have had the chance to spread (metastasize). At least 30% of all diagnosed colon cancers are made by screening individuals who have no current symptoms. It goes without saying that if you can reduce your risk of cancer by getting screened, you should do it. Also, if you can catch cancer early, your likelihood of cure is greatly improved. Don’t let the bowel prep deter you from your next colonoscopy, it is gentler on your body and psychology than a major surgery. Also, you have multiple screening options aside from a colonoscopy—though it is the gold standard for detecting polyps. Below are some alternatives that you can ask your physician about.

Screening options for average-risk individuals include:

  • Colonoscopy
  • CT colonography
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy
  • Fecal Occult Blood Test (gFOBT)
  • Stool DNA Test (sDNA)
  • Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT)

When should you start getting tested? The common age to begin screening for average-risk individuals has been 50. That is because 90% of colon cancers are diagnosed in persons 50 years or older. However, given the benefits of improved screening, the American Cancer Society has recently recommended that average-risk individuals begin screening at age 45.  

There are some scenarios where individuals should begin screening earlier. This should be done in cases where a person has an above average risk of developing colon cancer. These increased-risk individuals are those who have a family history of colon cancer or polyps, or individuals with certain high-risk genetic mutations. If you believe you may fall into one of these categories, don’t hesitate to contact your physician to discuss your situation.

If you have not been screened, or are between screening, be aware of certain signs and symptoms that can be associated with colon cancer. If you are experiencing any of the following, please consult with your physician.

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bleeding from the lower gastrointestinal tract
  • Anemia/fatigue
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Unexplained loss of appetite and/or weight loss
  • Bowel obstruction

Let March be the month that you take control over your own health for both your benefit and that of your loved ones. Don’t neglect your inner beauty. Get screened!

John Kidwell, M.D., is a colorectal surgeon at Texas Tech Physicians and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine.


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