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Understanding Colon Cancer

March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, an initiative that began in 2000 to raise awareness for this cancer that is the second leading cancer killer among men and women in the United States. But it doesn’t have to be. Take the time to learn about this very preventable and treatable form of cancer.

Colon cancer is not a disease of the elderly. While the Mayo Clinic estimates that the majority of cases occur in those ages 65 and older, younger people can also be at risk. According to the Colon Cancer Alliance, 10% of new colon cancer patients are under age 50.

What is colon cancer?

The colon is the large intestine or large bowel area of the body. The rectum is the passageway connecting the colon to the anus. Abnormal growths called polyps can form in the colon or rectum, which over time may turn into cancer. Screening tests help find polyps to remove before becoming cancerous or diagnose an earlier stage of colon cancer that responds to treatment.

What are the symptoms?

Screening is important because colon cancer doesn’t always exhibit symptoms. You may have cancerous polyps and not know it. If you experience a change in bowel movements or bloody stool, chronic stomach pains, nausea or unexplained weight loss, see your doctor.

Are you at risk?

The following are considered risk factors for colon cancer:

  • Family history of colon cancer or colorectal polyps
  • Diagnosed inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Certain genetic conditions including familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and Lynch Syndrome

Lifestyle factors can also contribute to an increased risk of colon cancer, including:

  • Overweight and obesity
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Tobacco use
  • Lack of physical activity
  • High fat diet
  • Low fruit and vegetable and low fiber diet

Knowing your family medical history with respect to colon cancer and leading a healthy lifestyle are important. But proper screening is critical. Talk to your doctor about the appropriate time to begin screening for this particular type of cancer that is treatable if caught in the early stages.