Reduce your risk of colorectal cancer

Published 9:40 pm Saturday, March 19, 2011

Reducing your risks for colon and rectal cancer can be easier than you think.

It is important to consider your colon and rectal health during March, which is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and every day.

Many of the measures that are recommended to prevent heart disease and diabetes will also serve to decrease your chances for getting colon cancer, said Gregory FitzHarris, a colorectal surgeon with Sentara Surgery Specialists.

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He said many diseases work in similar ways. If you don’t take care of your health, your risk for developing diseases you are most susceptible to is even higher.

Smoking, eating a large amount of red meat and not eating enough fruits and vegetables will increase your odds of getting colon cancer.

Exercising and having a healthy diet will decrease your risk most of all. He also strongly advises people to get regular colorectal screenings.

Western Tidewater has some of the highest mortality rates from colon and rectal cancer in all of Virginia, according to Virginia Department of Health data from 2004 to 2008.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer include rectal bleeding, blood in your stool, a change in bowel habits, constipation or diarrhea that lasts for more than two weeks, abdominal discomfort, feeling like your bowel does not empty completely, fatigue, weakness, unexplained weight loss, and gas pain lasting more than two weeks.

Sometimes, rectal bleeding can occur when a person has hemorrhoids, so it is difficult to pinpoint distinguishable symptoms, he said. The other symptoms, too, could be caused by something other than colorectal cancer.

“It takes quite a while for polyps to turn into cancer,” he said.

Removing precancerous polyps and being screened regularly can decrease your chances for getting colon cancer, he said. Getting a screening can help people avoid getting colon cancer.

When a person is able to identify the symptoms as being related to colon cancer, they already have the disease.

“Unfortunately, we have folks that don’t get a colonoscopy,” he said.

If a patient is found to have stage 1 colon cancer, their chances of having a disease-free survival after the removal of the diseased part of the colon is 90-95 percent, he said.

“The earlier you catch it, the better your survival rate,” he said.

There are other methods that doctors use to screen for colon cancer and polyps, but FitzHarris said other methods are less effective.

“They’re nowhere near as sensitive as a colonoscopy,” he said.

If a polyp is found or suspected using the other methods of screening, the patient will need to have a colonoscopy to follow up.

“A colonoscopy is the gold standard,” he said.

Most people should have a colonoscopy at age 50, he said. Black people are more susceptible to getting colorectal cancer and getting it sooner in life. He recommends that they begin screenings at age 45. If you have a family member with colorectal cancer, he recommends being screened 10 years earlier than the age your family member discovered they had the cancer.

If polyps are detected, go to a colorectal surgeon, he said.

“Don’t wait for symptoms to get screened,” he said.