Colon Cancer Prevention

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Michael White, professor and department head from the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy, talks about colorectal cancer, who is at risk and how to delay developing it.

Below are some questions with answers provided by White.

What is colorectal cancer and who is at risk?

Cancerous cells that grow either in the intestines, which is also called the colon, or the very last bit of the colon called the rectum have colorectal cancer. Everyone is at risk but some people have much higher risk than others.  Some people have genetic changes that make them more likely to develop it and others have intestinal inflammatory diseases like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. African Americans have a slightly higher risk than other ethnicities but if you live long enough, you have a risk of developing colorectal cancer. The good news is that you can delay getting colorectal cancer and it takes 10 to 15 years for the abnormal cancer cells to develop enough to cause colorectal cancer so early detection is critical.

Is there anything that can help delay developing colorectal cancer?

The best advice isn’t rocket science: Increase the intensity and amount of physical activity. Thirty minutes a day three to five days a week is reasonable but more exercise is even better. Avoid obesity and weight gain. Eat more fiber especially from fruits and vegetables. Limit intake of red and processed meats. Don’t have more than one or two alcoholic drinks a day. If your doctor tells you your calcium or vitamin D levels are too low, supplement with enough to prevent the deficiency but don’t overdo it. Aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen can reduce the colorectal cancer risk but increase the risk of stomach ulceration and it isn’t known if the benefits outweighs the risks. If you are already on a baby aspirin for heart health, you get benefits here too.

What are the advantages with early detection in this particular cancer?

Regular colorectal cancer screening is one of the most powerful weapons for preventing colorectal cancer. Screening is the process of looking for cancer or pre-cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease. Most people should start screening at age 50. Those who have a family history for colorectal polyps, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis should talk with their doctor about starting screening at a younger age and getting screened more frequently. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of people who should get screened are actually being screened. Colonoscopy is a great option but there are others as well so if you refuse to get a colonoscopy, don’t throw away the lab slip and wait until next year; make sure your doctor knows and ask about alternatives.

What about genetic testing for colorectal screening?

For people with a family history of colorectal cancer, how much younger screening should begin is often determined by whether you have a genetic issue that makes colorectal cancer more common. People with HNPCC and FAP genetic mutations should be tested starting in their teens and 20s while those without mutations might be able to wait until their 40s before getting tested. Genetic testing is not perfect, and in some cases the tests may not be able to provide solid answers.

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