When are your digestive issues actually colon cancer?

Colon cancer grows in the large intestine. The survival rate is quite high when it is detected early. However, red flag symptoms in the early stages of colon cancer are often dismissed as they can be vague and linked to many other digestive issues.

Research over the past few years has shown that the age of people diagnosed with colon cancer has dropped considerably. A US study of more than 10 million people has shown that colon cancer is on the rise in people under the age of 50.

General practitioner Dr Samantha Hendren is alarmed by the large proportion of patients under 50 who present with colon cancer when it’s already too late. She says she is hoping for more awareness among younger people, who often don't consider colon cancer when they first start experiencing symptoms. The earlier the diagnosis, the higher one's chance of survival.

What are the red flags?

But how can colon cancer be detected early when many digestive issues can so easily be passed off as something else?

Early diagnosis and treatment is key, but it’s often hard, as symptoms such as abdominal pain and other digestive issues may be dismissed as something less serious. Younger people also don’t go for screenings like a colonoscopy like older people do.

Dr Hendren adds that people should be on the lookout for symptoms such as sudden and persistent changes in bowel habits, dark blood in the stool and anaemia. “Anybody with blood in the stool not typical of a benign source such as the bright red blood associated with haemorrhoids should be getting a colonoscopy.”

Other symptoms that might accompany the above are sudden unexplained weight loss, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. 

Another red flag that doctors should look out for is a patient’s family history of colon cancer. If there is an immediate family member with colon cancer, the patient’s risk of getting it almost doubles, and that person should go for a screening at a younger age, according to Dr Hendren.

What increases your colon cancer risk?

Apart from family history, a recent study shows that the risk of colon cancer is mostly tied to lifestyle choices. Researchers determined this by assigning a “lifestyle score” to nearly 30 000 people based on certain factors in their blood and lifestyle data. The higher the score, the higher the risk of developing colon cancer.

The two lifestyle factors that scored the highest in this study, presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in March this year, showed that body mass index, followed by amount of red or processed meats a person eats, make up the highest risk scores.

The main message of this study was to show that lifestyle definitely impacts one's risk of developing colon cancer, and that a healthier lifestyle is vital for decreasing this risk.

How to reduce your risk

Now that we know that there is a strong link between lifestyle and the risk of colon cancer, there are ways to lower that risk. Here are a couple of guidelines that may help. A previous Health24 study mentions that at least 50% of colon cancer cases can be prevented through the following lifestyle changes:

  • Maintain a healthy weight and control belly fat, which has been linked to increased risk of colon cancer, independent of body weight.
  • Get regular moderate physical activity, which can range from house cleaning to running.
  • Eat plenty of high-fibre foods. For every 10 grams of fibre (a bit less than in a cup of beans) in your daily diet, your risk of colon cancer falls by 10%, Bender said.
  • Reduce red meat consumption and avoid processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, sausage and deli meats.
  • Avoid alcohol or limit your intake to no more than two standard drinks a day for men and one for women.
  • Include garlic in your meals. Evidence suggests that a diet rich in garlic reduces the risk of colon cancer.

Image credit: iStock

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