Colon cancer common -- and preventable

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Cancer of the large intestine or colon cancer remains the third-most common cancer in the U.S. according to cancer statistics.

It affects all races. Anyone can develop this type of cancer, with a lifetime risk of approximately 5 percent.

Typically, it develops from a normal bowel to a subtle growth, a so-called polyp, which then becomes bigger and may turn into cancer. The cancer can spread outside the bowel wall and into other organs. This process typically takes eight to 10 years.

In the beginning stages, the patient does not show any signs or symptoms.

What can one do to decrease his/her chance of developing colon cancer?

Physical activity: The more active one is, the lower the chance of getting this cancer. Some researches feel that by doing 30 minutes of exercise for at least five days a week, one can diminish the personal risk by 50 percent. Even mild to moderate activity is helpful even for physically inactive people who become more active later in life. It is never too late to start healthy life style choices.

Diet: Consuming a diet that is rich in red and processed meat poses a risk. We generally recommend a diet rich in fruits in vegetables. Consuming milk and calcium is another healthy suggestion.

Smoking: There is mounting evidence that smoking is another risk factor for cancers of the intestines, particularly rectal cancer, thus adding to the growing list of diseases strongly linked to tobacco consumption.

Alcohol: More recently, a link between moderate alcohol use (defined as two to four alcoholic beverages per day) and colon cancer has been found.

Medications and supplements: Many medications have been investigated to protect people from developing colon cancer. Among them are aspirin or NSAIDs (nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs, such as Ibuprofen) as well as high doses of Vitamin D and female hormones in women after menopause.

However, none of these medications are without side effects and risks, and the American Cancer Society has not endorsed any of them, awaiting some larger population-based studies.

Getting a screening: Finally, a screening procedure is one of the most important preventive steps one can take.

There are many screening options available. But not getting a test done at age 50 is not an option!

Unfortunately, only 60 percent of people in the state of Washington choose this potentially life-saving test.

One has a choice between stool tests, X-ray tests and a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is a procedure in which a flexible tube is inserted into one's rectum while he/she is sedated in order to examine the entire large bowel.

Gastroenterologists feel very strongly the colonoscopy is the best option. It can detect cancers and also the precursors (polyps). By removing these growths doctors can decrease the individual's chance of dying from colon cancer from 65-85 percent, according to studies.

It also offers the longest interval in between tests. Experts feel a person with an average risk (a person who does not have close relatives with colon cancers) needs a colonoscopy every 10 years. This test should be done by expert physicians, skilled in this procedure, having undergone a minimum of three years' training and who follow ongoing programs to ensure safety and quality.

Providence St. Mary Medical Center has been qualified by the American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy as a center of excellence and is fortunate to bring this expertise to the community.

Dr. Harald Schoeppner is a gastroenterologist at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla.

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