In the next 12 months, thousands of Portland residents will be diagnosed with a colorectal disease, the most prominent of which is colorectal cancer. Across the country, more than 147,000 Americans will be diagnosed with a related ailment. There is good news, however: Many colon cancers are treatable, and even curable if caught at an early stage. Understanding preventive measures and the symptoms are key to reducing the risk of a life-changing diagnosis.
Get to know your digestive system.
Your digestive system is a complicated, nutrient-absorbing group of organs, working around the clock to provide you with energy for everyday activity. Everything you consume, from healthy vegetables and lean meats to the occasional treat, passes through your esophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine (the pancreas, liver and gallbladder help out too). Once your body has absorbed the key nutrients, the waste product passes through your colon and out of your body. The “clinical term” that doctors and nurses at The Portland Clinic prefer to use for this process is, “using the restroom.”
What is colorectal cancer?
The American Cancer Society defines colorectal cancer as a cancer that starts in the colon or rectum. Typically beginning as a polyp on the inner lining of the colon or rectum, the growth can mutate into cancer in months or years. In some cases, no change takes place and the growth is benign. However, benign or adenomatous polyps are commonly referred to as a precancerous condition. There are numerous treatments for colorectal cancers, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapy.
Who is at risk?
The risk of developing a colorectal cancer increases with a family history of the disease and your age — more than 90 percent of cases occur in patients who are 50 years or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preexisting conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, or a genetic syndrome, including familial adenomatous polyposis or Lynch syndrome, may increase the risk of developing colon or rectal cancers.
While filling out medical paperwork can seem tedious, it is very important to establish an accurate family medical history with your doctor. Make sure to connect with your family members to understand what medical conditions may be present in your gene pool.
Protect yourself. Understand the symptoms.
Understanding the symptoms of colorectal cancer is one of the many steps you can take to reduce your risk of a more serious diagnosis. Keep in mind that early colorectal cancer typically has vague, if any, symptoms. The sooner a colorectal cancer is diagnosed, the higher the successful treatment and survival rate. The signs normally associated with the disease include:
- A change in bowel habits — consistent diarrhea, constipation or unsatisfying bowel movements
- Blood in your stool, resulting in a bright red or darker color
- A constant feeling of gas, bloating, pains or cramps
- Abnormal weight loss
If you experience any of these or a combination of these symptoms for an extended amount of time, the doctors and nurses at The Portland Clinic encourage you to schedule an appointment with your physician. There are multiple tests available for patients to screen for colorectal cancer, including a full body physical, an internal exam (colonoscopy) , stool based tests looking for blood or abnormal DNA markers. The goal of avoiding colorectal cancer should always be prevention and to date the best tool for prevention is still colonoscopy.
Lower your risk.
Even though genetics can increase the risk of colorectal cancer in some patients, everyone has the power to greatly reduce the chances of contracting this illness with a few simple lifestyle choices.
- Adopt healthy eating habits — A proper diet is one of the more obtainable goals to prevent colorectal cancer. Consuming less saturated fat, salt and red meat, and eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants will help you maintain a healthy digestive system. Dietary fiber can help fight colorectal cancer as well.
- Exercise — The relationship between colorectal cancer and physical activity has been studied extensively, and the risk of colorectal cancer has been seen to significantly be reduced among those who are more physically active. The risk of developing colon polyps, which can mutate into cancer, can be reduced with physical activity.
- Leave tobacco completely out of the equation — Not only will using tobacco affect a patient’s risk of developing lung or mouth cancer, but its use has also been linked to multiple other cancers throughout the body. Stop the use of tobacco of any variety, including e-cigarettes, as soon as possible. Doctors and nurses at The Portland Clinic are happy to assist patients in making a tobacco-free plan.
- Consume alcohol moderately — An occasional drink is not a problem, but binge drinking or drinking for the sole purpose of getting drunk can have a strong effect on cancer-causing cells in the liver, colon and rectum. Consume alcohol responsibly and in moderation.
March was declared National Colon Cancer Awareness Month by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Dress in Blue Day, the first Friday in March, also spreads awareness of colorectal cancer, working with patients, their families and those at higher risk for colorectal cancer to stay informed, understand the risks and schedule annual checkups with their physician.
The Portland Clinic is here to help.
A cancer diagnosis is a tough issue to face. It is important to be aware of your personal risks and maintain a healthy lifestyle to help prevent colorectal cancer. If you have any concerns or questions regarding your health, or the treatment options for colorectal cancer, please don’t hesitate to make an appointment with one of our gastroenterologists.
*Please note, we cannot provide medical advice to nonpatients.