Colon Cancer Prevention

Colon cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Screening for colon cancer has been shown to be safe and effective. It is estimated that more than 1/3 of colon cancer deaths could be prevented if everyone participated in colon cancer screening at the appropriate age.

Your colon is an important part of your digestive system. The colon, also known as the large intestine, is located at the end of your digestive tract and is responsible for the absorption of water and minerals from food. It also stores solid waste within the rectum, prior to defecation.

Colon cancer occurs when the cells lining the colon become cancerous, or malignant. Cells anywhere in the body are considered cancerous when they develop the ability to grow and multiply uncontrollably, locally invade into surrounding tissue, and spread distantly throughout the body. Colon cancer usually develops from pre-cancerous lesions called colon polyps. The polyps that can become cancerous are called adenomas and serrated polyps. These polyps are not cancer, but have the ability to eventually become colon cancer, a process that usually takes a few years. These polyps can be detected and safely removed, thereby preventing colon cancer from developing. For people at an average risk for colon cancer, pre-cancerous polyps typically do not develop until the age of 50. Some people have an increased risk for colon cancer and may develop cancer earlier. Some of the factors for increased risk of colon cancer include a personal history of colon cancer or polyps, a family history of colon cancer, a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, and inherited cancer syndromes such as Familial Adenomatous Polyposis and Lynch Syndrome.

Colonoscopy is the one test that combines both screening and prevention for colon cancer. It involves the doctor inserting a long flexible tube, called a colonoscope, into the colon through the anus. The colonoscope contains a camera at the end so the doctor can view the entire colon to look for colon cancer or pre-cancerous polyps. The colonoscope also has the ability to remove polyps from the colon so that they can be sent to the pathologist for examination. With the ability to both screen for and prevent colon cancer by removing polyps, colonoscopy is the test most gastroenterologist recommend as the single best screening exam for colon cancer. Colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years starting at the age of 50. People at increased risk for colon cancer or those with polyps may need more frequent and/or earlier screening. Other screening tests are also available and include fecal occult blood test, fecal immunohistochemical test, sigmoidoscopy, CT colonography, and stool DNA testing.

Along with colon cancer screening, healthy lifestyle choices are the best current steps you can take to prevent colon cancer. The following measures have been shown to reduce your risk for developing colon cancer: