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Listen to your body

Published 10:36pm Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Suffolk’s Pam Askew was only 35 when she first went to her doctor because of a constant stomach ache and not feeling well.

She eventually was diagnosed with colon cancer, a disease that strikes about 140,000 Americans each year.

Unlike Askew, most colon cancer patients are over 50.

Colon cancer can be caught early in most patients through a colonoscopy. It is recommended that everyone 50 and older have the test every 10 years. My father-in-law, however, in his 70s had never had the procedure.

After months — and maybe even years — of digestive issues, he finally mentioned it to a doctor. He got an appointment for a colonoscopy the Monday after Thanksgiving.

By Christmas he had a colon cancer diagnosis and a surgery date for the first part of January.

The surgery went well, and his prognosis is good considering how advanced the disease appeared to be. He is lucky the disease hadn’t spread to nearby organs.

March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, and Askew is speaking out about the importance of listening to your body and getting an early diagnosis.

Early diagnosis is key to so many cancers, not just colon cancer. It is very easy to ignore a twinge or other health issue as “nothing.” I know. I have done it too.

An acquaintance of mine had apparently been ignoring her symptoms for years, maybe even decades. By the time her colon cancer was diagnosed, it had spread to other organs, and the diagnosis was too late to save her life.

Even though she was very young to be diagnosed with colon cancer, Askew knew something was wrong, she said.

“Early intervention is just so important,” she said. “Don’t ignore the signs and symptoms and think they’ll just go away. Early diagnosis and treatment is the best.”

Askew’s cancer went into remission, but came back after seven or eight years. The cancer is more advanced, and inoperable, but is being kept at bay by a special treatment.

It is admirable that Askew, while still fighting her battle, is trying to help others.

She did fit one risk factor for colon cancer — family history. Both her parents died of cancer. The disease or other colon problems in siblings or children can also increase risk. Ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and Type 2 diabetes also increase risk.

The risk factors that can be controlled are the same as those for all cancers and some other diseases. They include:

  • Get tested. Screening should start at age 50 for most people, but talk to your doctor about your risk and whether you should start earlier.
  • Eat lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Get your fiber from food, not supplements. Eat less red meat and processed meats.
  • Get regular exercise and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Limit alcohol intake.
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