March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and UR Medicine experts Dr. Christina Cellini and Dr. Marcus Noel explain why there’s no better time to learn about this disease and actions you can take to help prevent it.
Each year, thousands of men and women in the U.S. are diagnosed with colorectal cancer—one of the most commonly diagnosed and deadliest cancers. But there is some good news. Regular screening and a few lifestyle changes may reduce your risk of having colorectal cancer.
Because colon cancer often starts as a colon polyp—a small clump of cells along the colon lining that may develop into cancer—screening for polyps, with a colonoscopy test, is considered an effective way to prevent colorectal cancer. When polyps are found, they can be removed before they become cancerous.
It usually takes a long time for polyps to develop into cancer, so if you can find polyps early, you avoid a bigger problem down the line.
In general, men and women should begin screening at age 50. As long as the screening comes back normal and no polyps are found, you’ll only have to be screened every 10 years.
However, if you have an immediate family member—such as a parent or sibling—who has been diagnosed with colon cancer, you should be screened earlier than age 50. In this case, consider being screened 10 years prior to the age your family member was when he or she was diagnosed.
For example, if your mother was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 44, you should start your screening at age 34.
Also, those who have inflammatory bowel syndrome should have more frequent screenings. Talk to your doctor to learn more about screening frequency based on your situation.
In addition to screenings, making a few changes to your lifestyle may reduce your risk for colon cancer.
- If you smoke, quit. People who smoke have a higher risk for colon cancer.
- Exercise regularly. Those who are obese may have an increased risk.
- Eat a healthy diet. Diets high in fat and red meat can contribute to colon cancer. Enjoy lean meats, like chicken and fish, on a regular basis and reserve red meat as an occasional treat. Or, if you’re up for it, consider a vegetarian or pescovegetarian (vegetarian plus fish and seafood) diet, which may reduce your risk of colorectal and other cancers, according to a recent study by JAMA Internal Medicine.
- Drink less alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption—more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men—may raise your risk.
Researchers are also studying the relationship between low vitamin D and colon cancer risk. Maintaining a healthy level of Vitamin D is good for general health.
When it comes down to it, though, the most tried and true prevention method is early screening.
Some find the preparation for a colonoscopy a bit rough, but it’s well worth it if you can find a cancer you can take out because it results in a cure and you can avoid more extensive surgeries.
If you are uninsured or underinsured, the Cancer Services Program of Monroe County can help. They will provide an at-home screening kit and a diagnostic colonoscopy if needed. Learn more about this service by calling (585) 224-3070.
Christina Cellini, M.D., specializes in colorectal surgery at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital.
Marcus Noel, M.D., is a hematologist/oncologist with the Wilmot Cancer Institute. His focus is gastrointestinal cancers.