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March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Drop the Embarrassment! Start a Conversation on Colon Cancer

Did you know one of the best-known quotes from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is: “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: Religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin. Most of us grew up being told never to discuss religion or politics because they can be volatile subjects—both can make people feel uncomfortable. One could argue many other topics can be added to that list: Global warming, income, problems with your spouse, and…colon cancer.

Several years ago, the topic of colorectal cancer (most often referred to as colon cancer) was a taboo topic. While breast, pancreatic, skin, and lung cancers were easily and openly discussed, most Americans were embarrassed to talk about what is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer according to the Colon Cancer Alliance. The American Cancer Society estimates 136,830 people were diagnosed and 50,310 died from colon cancer in the United States in 2014.

In 2000, three years after her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer and two years after he passed away from the disease, Katie Couric made the brave decision to undergo a colonoscopy that was taped and shown on NBC’s The Today Show. Later research showed the number of colonoscopies increased by almost 20% nationwide after Couric’s attempt to raise awareness. This scientifically-documented response has been dubbed the “Couric effect.”

Unfortunately, most colon cancers are found too late—after the disease has spread to the surrounding tissue or other organs. But, with regular screening after the age of 50, the cancer can be found early enough to greatly improve the odds of survivability. A family history of colon cancer increases the risk of developing the disease so discuss this with your doctor so that he may appropriately modify your screening options.

Colon cancer presents specific symptoms to report to your doctor including:

  • Any change in bowel habits;
  • Diarrhea or constipation;
  • Blood on or in the stool (either bright red or very dark in color);
  • Narrower stools than usual;
  • General stomach discomfort (bloating, fullness, and/or cramps);
  • Frequent gas pains;
  • Weakness and fatigue;
  • A feeling that the bowel doesn’t completely empty;
  • Weight loss with no known reason; and
  • Constant tiredness.

The majority of colon cancer patients do not have a family history or genetic connection to the disease, but certain factors can increase your risk of developing this type of cancer. According the Mayo Clinic, they include:

  • Age—The great majority of people diagnosed with colon cancer are older than 50.
  • African-American race—African-Americans have a greater risk of colon cancer than do people of other races.
  • A personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps—If you’ve already had colon cancer or adenomatous polyps, you have a greater risk of colon cancer in the future.
  • Inflammatory intestinal conditions—Chronic inflammatory diseases of the colon, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, can increase your risk of colon cancer.
  • Inherited syndromes that increase colon cancer risk—Genetic syndromes passed through generations of your family, such as familial adenomatous polyposis and hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome) can increase your risk of colon cancer.
  • Family history of colon cancer and colon polyps—You’re more likely to develop colon cancer if you have a parent, sibling, or child with the disease. If more than one family member has colon cancer or rectal cancer, your risk is even greater.
  • Low-fiber, high-fat diet—Research in this area has had mixed results. Some studies have found an increased risk of colon cancer in people who eat diets high in red meat.
  • A sedentary lifestyle—If you’re inactive, you’re more likely to develop colon cancer. Getting regular physical activity may reduce your risk of colon cancer.
  • Diabetes—Those with diabetes and insulin resistance may have an increased risk of colon cancer.
  • Obesity—People who are obese have an increased risk of colon cancer and an increased risk of dying of colon cancer when compared with those considered normal weight.
  • Smoking—Those who smoke cigarettes may have an increased risk of colon cancer.
  • Alcohol—Heavy use of alcohol may increase your risk of colon cancer.
  • Radiation therapy for cancer–Radiation therapy directed at the abdomen to treat previous cancers may increase the risk of colon cancer.

The encouraging news is that, when detected early, colorectal cancer is often curable. When pre-cancerous growths or polyps are detected and removed through screening, colon cancer can often be prevented. Get over your initial embarrassment about the topic and start a conversation with your doctor—it could save your life.

For more information on screenings for colorectal cancer, call the CCHC Endoscopy Center in New Bern, at (252) 514-6644. A team of doctors and other health care providers are ready to discuss any concerns you may have.

Keywords: colon cancer, colon, colorectal, colonoscopy, polyps, screening, bowel, bowels, stool, stools, symptoms, intestinal, radiation therapy, endoscopy