Colon Cancer Risk and Screening for Women

Colon cancer is common and deadly. Although men are more likely to get colon cancer, it is the second most common cancer in women, the first being lung and the third being breast. In the US, the incidence of colon cancer has declined 2-3% due to better awareness in screening and better lifestyle choices over the past 15 years. A women’s lifetime risk of colon cancer is about 5 percent, with 90 percent of cases found in women over the age of 50. It is believed that 70 percent of all colon cancers are due to environmental and dietary factors and the remaining 30 due to inherited and “familial” causes.

What Increases Your Risk of Colon Cancer?

  • Unhealthy diet including processed, fatty foods and red meat
  • Over 50 years of age
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Cigarette Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Excessive alcohol intake (2 or more drinks/day)
  • Adenomatous polyps before age 60 years
  • African American ethnicity
  • Lower socioeconomic status
  • Not getting proper screening
  • Family history of colon cancer
  • Inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease
  • Low vitamin D

Inherited and "familial" causes include a family history of colon cancer. If you have a first-degree relative (parent, child or sibling) who has colon cancer your risk of colon cancer is 1.7 times higher than the general population. The most common types of familial colon cancer are familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and Lynch Syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer of HNPCC). Fortunately these conditions make up only 5 percent of the causes of colon cancer. If you have a family history of polyps in a relative under age 60 years, you should start having colon cancer screening as early as age 40.

Protective factors that may decrease your risk of colon cancer include regular physical activity and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and high in fiber. Omega 3 fish oil has also been associated with a decreased risk of colon cancer. Dietary folic acid, Vitamin B6 , calcium and garlic may also provide some protection. Aspirin and non-steroidal antiinflammatories (NSAIDs) such as Advil may also protect against polyps of the colon and colon cancer.

If you experience any of these symptoms you should alert your health care provider.

Symptoms NOT to ignore:

  • Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
  • Change in bowel habits such as constipation or diarrhea or in consistency and shape
  • Persistent bloating, cramping, gas or pain
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Unexplained weight loss

Colon cancer screening saves lives. In the early stages of colon cancer, you may not experience any symptoms, which is why screening is so important. Consistent and regular screening will reduce your risk of dying from colon cancer up to 90 percent. If colon cancer is detected early, the chance of a successful treatment and long term survival is substantial.

Screening guidelines for colonoscopy:

  • Beginning at age 50, all adults should undergo a colonoscopy. This should be repeated every 10 years if you have normal results.
  • African Americans should consider screening starting at 45 years.
  • Virtual Colonoscopy or Computed Tomographic Colonoscopy should start at 50 years and be repeated every 5 years if results are normal.
  • Women 50 years and old should have yearly fecal occult blood tests.
  • Patients with a family history of colon cancer should begin screening sooner depending on the circumstance.
  • After age 75, women with consistently negative colonoscopies do not need additional testing.

The Dreaded Prep

The colonoscopy is typically done in an outpatient setting with mild sedation. A thin tube with a tiny camera is passed through your colon as the doctor evaluates the images on a television screen. The procedure takes less than an hour. Complications such as bleeding or trauma to the colon are rare, occurring in 1 in 1,000 patients. In order for the gastroenterologist to see your entire colon it must be completely clean with no stool present - which means The Dreaded Prep. The 24 hour liquid diet and prep will empty the colon completely, allowing the entire colon to be accurately visualized. Diarrhea and intestinal cramping are common. Proper prep is important to ensure an adequate colonoscopy and to reassure you that there are no polyps or tumors present.

Consult with your health care provider for further information relating to your own medical history and colon cancer risks.

This post has been reproduced with the permission of Dr. SherryTM

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