Stomach cramps, loose stools… is that blood from annoying hemorrhoids, or something more serious?
Most days you can count on your digestive tract to be there for you. This incredible system breaks down food, extracts nutrients, and eliminates waste in an orderly and efficient way.
Recently there has been a growing threat to that system, one that is now the second leading cause of death in the United States (1).
That threat is colon or colorectal cancer.
March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. In this article, we’re bringing you the symptoms you need to look out for, treatment options, as well as ways to reduce your risk.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Colon Cancer
Healthy adults may pass multiple stools per day. Modern diets that are high in carbs and low in fiber are contributing to a number of health concerns, including cancer.
Like other cancers, colon cancer begins when the cells that line your lower large intestine begin to multiply in an out-of-control way. What makes colon cancer a bit different is that it isn’t always obvious. You won’t always know something is wrong until it’s more advanced, which is why prevention is key.
The following are symptoms (2) to look out for:
- Bloody stool
- Rectal bleeding, usually bring red in color
- Regular cramping or abdominal pain
- Losing weight
- Feeling weak or fatigued
- A noticeable change in bowel habits, such as chronic constipation, diarrhea, or thin, narrow stools
If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms for longer than a couple of weeks, schedule an appointment with your doctor right away:
Once colon cancer has been identified, you may be wondering what your treatment options are.
Depending on the severity of the cancer, the most common options include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Your doctor can help guide the discussion and help formulate a plan that best suits your needs. Some of the options that are currently available (3) are:
- Polypectomy: This is when the polyps are removed during a colonoscopy and is most advised during the early stages
- Endoscopic mucosal resection: If the polyps are larger, a special tool can be used to remove both it and the surrounding tissue.
- Laparoscopic surgery: This involves taking the growth through several small incisions using an instrument and camera systems to guide the surgeon.
- Colectomy: This type of procedure involves removing parts of the colon where the cancer is most prevalent. It also removes a margin of tissue in each direction in hopes of collecting all the cancer present.
Target drug and immunotherapy are also options that branch into more integrative care methods of treatment.
In cases where the cancer is too far advanced or other treatments have failed, hospice and palliative care is often the last quality option.
How do you know if you’re at risk? Those with a family history of colon cancer, who smoke or drink alcohol regularly, are overweight, or eat a low-fiber diet may be more likely to get colon cancer than those who don’t.
Benjamin Franklin famously quoted, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This gives us hope that while the odds may be increasing, there are things you can do to minimize your risk of contracting colon, as well as other types of cancers and diseases.
Some of the best preventative measures you can take include:
Eating more fiber-rich foods
You’ve heard fiber keeps you regular, right? Well, it also keeps colon cancer at bay. When your stools are bulked up with fibrous material, it leaves little room for carcinogens to attach to the lining of your colon. This encourages waste to pass quickly, reducing your risk for anything to “latch on” and cause damage (4).
Incorporating more Vitamin D and Calcium
Not only will your bones benefit from added calcium and Vitamin D, but these nutrients can also play a role in protecting your colon against developing cancer. Bild and fatty acids break down the cell lining in your colon, and calcium helps slow this process down. Vitamin D is a hormone that works to support the immune system and slow down tumor growth (5,6).
Maintaining a healthy weight
Being overweight puts excess strain on your joints, tissues, and organs. Over time, this can make it hard to perform normal processes like digestion, movement, metabolism, respiration, and more. Obesity and higher BMIs are linked to cancers (7), which is why it’s important to preserve a healthy body weight.
Exercise is great for clearing your mind and helping you sleep better at night. But did you know it can also help lower the chances of getting colon cancer by up to 24%. How? By encouraging circulation, balancing insulin levels, and regulating hormone metabolism (8,9).
Your body breaks down alcohol into something called acetaldehyde. This chemical damages the DNA in your cells, which is the foundation of how cancers are created, including colon cancers (11).
Putting the cigarette down
While not directly tied to your colon, smoking is known to increase your risk for cancer development, as well as other conditions like heart disease and COPD (10).
Getting regular screenings
After the age of 45, it’s a good idea to schedule regular cancer screenings with your healthcare provider. Different screenings work in different ways. Together, you and your doctor can decide what’s necessary depending on your health, current risk, and other factors.
Some of the most common screening options include:
- At-home stool test
Before making any changes to your routine, be sure to consult your medical professional to determine what is best for you. Furthermore, if you have concerns about colon cancer it is always best to consult your medical professional.
Colon cancer is on the rise, but there is hope. You can take your health back into your hands by first taking inventory of your current diet and lifestyle. Then, work together with a functional medicine doctor or nutritionist. They can help you set small but achievable goals that include eating more fiber, exercising more, reducing your stress levels, and saying no to harmful habits.
March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Check-in on loved ones – let them know what you learned from this and be sure to share in your social circle!
References & Disclaimers
✝✝This noted statement is based on independent research and is not necessarily the opinion of the author