Preventing colon cancer

Many young Nigerians have either died or they have been hospitalised due to colon cancer. Why? It is because nobody likes to talk about bowel movements or cancer and nobody likes to get a colonoscopy.

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the third leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. So that makes it a subject worth discussing.

Although some people consider it embarrassing to talk about colon cancer, it is important to become knowledgeable about it and to undergo a test for it.

Colorectal cancer is also the third most common cancer in both sexes and it is rising at an alarming proportion. This form of cancer does not get as much attention from the media as breast cancer, for example, but it is more common and just as deadly. Even when it does not kill, the consequences of bowel surgery can compromise the quality of life.

Although a family history of colon cancer increases the risk for the disease, it is estimated that 75 per cent of colon cancers occur in people who are 50 years-old or older, who have no family history.

Most colon cancers originate in polyps found in the colon. These polyps are usually benign (not cancerous), but they can become cancerous. Having a lot of polyps in the colon is a risk factor for colon cancer.

A colonoscopy is a colon cancer screening test that checks for polyps in the colon and rectum. However, doctors tend not to recommend a colonoscopy as often as they should because of the embarrassment factor and because a colonoscopy is invasive and uncomfortable: a flexible tube with a tiny camera on it is inserted into the rectum and pushed up into the colon in order to look for polyps and other signs of cancer. There is also an attachment that can snip off polyps, if the doctor thinks this is necessary.

In spite of the discomfort and embarrassment associated with a colonoscopy, everyone should have one when they turn 50, 60 and 70 years-old.

There is another way to test for colon cancer. It is not as direct a test as a colonoscopy and it is not a substitute for a colonoscopy, but it is one that more people are willing to do more often, particularly since it is inexpensive and easy to do.

One of the most common warning signs of colon cancer is blood in the stool. However, there may not be enough blood visible until colon cancer is advanced. That is where the EZ Detect test comes in. It is a simple, inexpensive test that can detect even very small amounts of blood in the stool, and it is available over the counter for home use. These types of tests are called Fecal Occult Blood Tests.

Colon cancer has a 90 to 95 per cent cure rate when caught early and there lies the catch. Many people have no symptoms until the cancer is advanced and that’s what makes it so deadly. Colon cancer is known as the “silent killer”.  Unfortunately, colon cancer rates are steadily rising. Early diagnosis (prior to symptoms) could save 90 per cent of people who are afflicted with the disease. Therefore, everybody should undertake early diagnostic screening tests.

If one waits until suggestive symptoms occur (blood in the stool, irregular bowel movements, pain, weight loss), the colon tumour is likely to be advanced and cure much less likely. Obviously, what is needed is a better, less intrusive and less expensive screening test for colon cancer. The Fecal Occult Blood Test can detect hidden blood in the stool, which is one of the first symptoms of the disease, and they can be done at home once a year. But by far, our best option is prevention. Fortunately, we know a lot about prevention. Diet is probably most important. Let’s take a closer look.

Eating to prevent colon cancer

In a nutshell, to prevent colon cancer, we need to increase our fibre intake. Eat a variety of fresh vegetables, maintain good levels of antioxidants, avoid processed foods, drink plenty of good water and get some exercise. These factors have shown up again and again as preventive measures in the study of colon cancer. Exercise has been shown to prevent colon cancer more than any other cancer.

The colon is also known as the large intestine and it is the last area of the digestive tract that waste matter passes through before elimination. It is where your body re-absorbs water and minerals for recycling and where it absorbs vitamin B12 as well as fat-soluble vitamins A and E. The bacteria in the colon manufacture vitamin K, which plays a role in blood clotting. Fibre is what keeps all of these processes moving along in the bowel.

Fibre refers to the indigestible residue of plants. It consists of complex carbohydrates that we are unable to digest. They encompass a wide variety of molecular structures that differ in their degree of solubility in water. They add to the bulk of bowel contents and stimulate the passage of waste matter through the colon. Shorter transit times (time of ingestion of food until its elimination via defecation) are related to decreased incidence of colon cancer. In other words, constipation increases your risk of colon cancer and fibre prevents constipation. Drinking plenty of water also helps to prevent constipation.

Until the past six or seven generations, humans ate a diet filled with vegetable and grain fibre. With industrialisation, our diets changed radically: the processing of foods for commercial sale resulted in the loss of much of the fibre, especially of grain foods.

Comparing the illnesses occurring in industrialised and non-industrialised populations, it is apparent that many common illnesses rarely occur in less industrialised areas that eat high fibre diets. Such illnesses include diabetes, constipation, diverticulitis, colon cancer, heart disease, obesity, gall bladder disease and gallstones, pancreatitis, hiatus hernia, appendicitis, hemorrhoids, varicose veins and even breast cancer. There is an unmistakable epidemiologic relationship between these diseases and low dietary fibre.

To be continued

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