Colon cancer affects approximately 136,000 people each year, and it’s the third-most common type of cancer experienced by both men and women. Responsible for the second-highest rate of cancer mortality, approximately 51,800 people die from colon cancer each year according to reports from the Center for Disease Control.

There are several reasons for colon cancer’s prevalence and deadliness. Dietary issues may contribute to the development of colon polyps, and genetics play an important factor in the development of this disease. Additionally, colon cancer is difficult to catch early. It often presents no symptoms during early development, and it may spread before the patient realizes anything is wrong. In order to prevent colon cancer from developing and spreading, it’s important to take steps to screen for it early on.

What is Colon Cancer?

Your colon is another term for your large intestine, which makes up the final stretch of your digestive system. Your colon ends in your rectum. The colon is responsible for absorbing certain nutrients and passing food waste through for excretion. In most cases, cancer develops in the glands that line the interior surface of the colon. This cancer most often follows the development of non-cancerous colon polyps, which are benign growths on the interior surface of the colon.

There are several factors that may influence the development of colon cancer:

  • A low-fiber, high-fat diet, especially one with a large quantity of animal protein
  • A family history of colon cancer
  • The presence of inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s
  • A personal history of breast cancer

Men and women over the age of 60 are the most likely to develop colon cancer. It’s also slightly more prevalent in people of African or European descent. Early symptoms may include sudden weight loss, diarrhea or abdominal pain. Many people do not display any symptoms of colon cancer, however, so the best way of identifying the disease is to screen for it.

Colon Cancer Screening

As people approach middle age, colon cancer screening becomes a part of routine healthcare. There are several ways to identify potential bowel problems, but a colonoscopy is the only truly effective way to assess the health of the entire colon.

In a colonoscopy, the doctor inserts a small camera attached to a tube up the patient’s rectum. This enables the doctor to view the entire interior surface of the large intestine and rectum. The doctor is then able to see the presence of colon polyps. Tissue samples can also be taken to test for cancerous growths.

If any abnormalities are discovered in the colon, treatment can begin. Very early stages of cancer or polyps can be removed by a colonoscopy. If the cancer spreads deeper into the bowel’s tissue and smooth muscle, the doctor will need to complete a more invasive surgery called a large bowel resection. This involves the surgical removal of affected sections of bowel. Patients with later stages of cancer may require radiation treatment or chemotherapy as well.

Treatment Options and Prevention

As with all cancers, early detection is crucial to treating colon cancer. Receiving a regular colonoscopy can help spot the development of polyps and remove cancer cells before they have a chance to spread. Early stages of colon cancer are considered to be curable with proper treatment.

In addition to routine colon screenings, people can reduce their chances of developing colon cancer by eating a healthy diet. Although poor dietary choices are not the sole cause of cancer in all patients, a clear link has been established between diet and cancer. People who eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet have a lower risk of developing colon cancer than those who routinely consume high quantities of animal protein and processed foods.

Eating a healthy diet comprised primarily of plant-based foods like whole grains, vegetables and legumes plays an important role in preventing a wide array of diseases. In addition to preventing colon cancer, this type of diet has been linked to lower risk of heart disease and diabetes. If you are young and healthy, maintaining your health through a proper diet and regular exercise is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from medical conditions later in life.

If you have a family history of colon cancer or any of the warning signs of the disease, be sure to discuss your concerns with your doctor. This will help you determine how frequently your colon screenings should be completed and what dietary changes you can make to protect your health in the long term.