I grew up in the days when you didn’t discuss body functions. No, I’m not so old that you couldn’t say the word “legs,” but as a young nurse I often was embarrassed when I had to discuss their digestive processes with patients. And I found that many people obviously were equally squeamish when it came to talking about their colon and rectum. That hesitation still is evident today and may well play a part in why colorectal cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.
We’re still not quick to discuss this part of our body today or to participate in screening programs for it, although the Department of Human Resources and the American Cancer Society recommend one of the following tests, beginning at age 50 for men and women who are at average risk for developing colorectal cancer:
1. Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) every year
2. Flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years
3. Colonoscopy every 10 years — colonoscopy screening can prevent about 65 percent of colorectal cancer cases.
Even though they’re not favorite topics for conversation, the colon and rectum play very important roles in how our bodies use the food we eat. They also are important in helping our body get rid of leftovers after our body has used what it needs. We now know that low-calorie, high-fiber diets aid in this digestion and elimination. The fruits and vegetables in this diet are important to a healthy colon and rectum because they also effectively pass out of the body bacteria found in stool. When this doesn’t happen properly, problems such as bloating, gas and pain occur.
The exact causes of colon and rectal cancer are uncertain, but they appear to be caused by both inherited and lifestyle factors. Genetic factors may determine a person’s susceptibility to the disease, while dietary and other lifestyle factors may determine which individuals at risk actually go on to form polyps that later become cancers. The American Cancer Society has identified several risk factors that increase a person’s chance of developing colorectal cancer.
• Age is the primary risk factor, with more than 90 percent of cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed in people older than 50.
• Risk is increased by a personal or family history of colorectal cancer and/or polyps, or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease.
• Recent studies indicate that tobacco users are 30 to 40 percent more likely than nonsmokers to die from colorectal cancer. Smoking may be responsible for causing
about 12 percent of fatal colorectal cancers.
• Alcohol consumption
• Physical inactivity
• A diet high in saturated fat and/or red meat, as well as inadequate intake of fruits, vegetables and fiber.
If you eat lots of red meat and processed meat, you should consider reducing your intake to minimize your risk of developing colorectal cancer. Processed meats include salami, chorizo, sausages, burgers, pepperoni, lunch meat, ham, bacon, corned beef, pate, beef jerky and dried strips of meat.
While many people with colorectal cancer don’t have any symptoms — which is why screening for the disease is so crucial — symptoms do occur as the disease progresses and may include:
• Rectal bleeding
• Blood in or on the stool (bright red)
• Change in bowel habits
• Stools that are narrower than usual
• General stomach discomfort (bloating, fullness, and/or cramps)
• Diarrhea, constipation or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
• Frequent gas pains
• Weight loss for no apparent reason
• Constant tiredness
If you have any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, you should see your health-care professional immediately.
According to a new report from the American Cancer Society, a large portion of the 141,000 colorectal cancer cases and 49,000 deaths that are expected in the United States this year could be prevented with more screening and by applying prevention measures. The report also stressed that about 25 percent of colorectal cases could be prevented by leading a healthy lifestyle, including maintaining a healthy weight, exercising 30 minutes per day, eating a healthy diet and not drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.
Reduce your risk for colorectal cancer through:
1. Regular screening tests
2. Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight
3. Healthy eating — eat lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
4. Eliminating tobacco
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.