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Know the signs of treatable cancer
Colon cancer is highly preventable

Date published: 2/19/2006

AS WE APPROACH March, which is colon cancer awareness month, we thought we'd revisit the topic of colon cancer, which we last wrote about in 2004.

Colon cancer is highly preventable and can often be cured if it's detected early.

Colon and rectal cancers begin in the digestive, or gastrointestinal, system. Risk factors for colon cancer include:

Personal or family history of colon cancer, polyps or inflammatory bowel disease.

Prior endometrial, ovarian or breast cancer.

Eating a high-fat, low-fiber diet.

Smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle and excessive alcohol consumption.

There is some evidence that diet is a factor in some cancers. However, it is difficult to measure the real impact of diet in preventing cancer. Still, it makes sense to eat a well-balanced and nutritious diet.

Colon cancer and many other cancers can be traced to genes that are passed down through families. Others result from some random change in a person's genes or cells. Some cancers evolve from a combination of these factors, but most causes have not yet been determined.

Signs and symptoms of colon cancer include rectal bleeding, blood in the stool and changes in bowel habits (such as the shape, color and frequency of the stool).

Should symptoms occur, a colonoscopy (viewing the entire colon with a flexible fiber-optic scope) or a barium enema may be performed.

If polyps or suspicious lesions are seen, they may be totally removed if they are small enough, or a piece of the polyp may be removed for examination. This tissue is sent to a laboratory for evaluation and diagnosis by a specially trained pathologist.

If a cancer is found, surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be performed. This is usually coordinated with an oncologist, a physician who specializes in cancer treatment.

For all those over age 50, and for those who are younger but have risk factors as described above, it is recommended to have:

An annual stool test for hidden blood.

A sigmoidoscopy (viewing the lower colon with a flexible fiber-optic scope) every five years.

A barium enema every five to 10 years.

A colonoscopy every 10 years.

Colon cancer can be found early if you report any symptoms right away to your doctor. But being screened before symptoms occur is ideal.

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