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When it comes to colon cancer, knowledge is power

colonIt’s a part of the body we tend not to think about, but knowing something about the colon could save your life.

Located in the abdomen, the colon “connects your small bowel to your anus and rectum, which allows you to empty stool,” says Dr. David Beck, chairman of colon and rectal surgery at Ochsner Clinic. You may be surprised to learn that the colon is five to seven feet long, and though it is important to have, it is not a vital organ. “You can live a normal life without your colon, but if you take out your colon and leave your rectum, you have more bowel movements,” informs Beck. Those without a colon need to use a colostomy bag to collect stool.

Like any aspect of your health, your colon should be monitored for early detection of disease. A colonoscopy, the gold standard in screening, is recommended for those 50 years old, and every 10 years thereafter. During a colonoscopy, “we place a lighted flexible tube in the colon to look at the lining. All cancers in the colon start in the lining, so we look for abnormalities,” says Beck. The procedure is not more than 20 minutes long, and the hardest part is the preparation. The patient’s intestines need to be clean, “which means drinking solutions or taking medicines that help evacuate the stool,” explains Beck.

The colonoscopy has been around since the seventies, and it is the best defense against colon cancer. “Colon cancer is the third most common cancer, and it is the second most common cancer that causes death,” says Beck. There are three warning signs. “We worry about rectal bleeding, a change in bowel habits or abdominal pain,” says Beck. Other red flags include persistent constipation, diarrhea and unexplained fatigue. Sometimes, however, colon cancer can be asymptomatic.

In the best-case scenario, colon cancer is caught before it starts to cause symptoms. “Colon cancer is unique in that we can identify a lesion, like a polyp, that occurs before the cancer develops. If you take out the polyps, you will never get cancer,” says Beck. If your colorectal surgeon or gastroenterologist finds a polyp, it is advised to schedule a colonoscopy in three years.

There are several other screening methods. “We can check for blood in the stool, but eating red meat can make the test positive sometimes, so it is less efficient than the colonoscopy,” says Beck. In a fecal occult blood test, blood in the stool does not always indicate colon cancer. It can show hemorrhoids, ulcerative colitis, diverticular disease or intestinal infections that cause inflammation. X-rays are sometimes used as well. Colon cancer presents in four stages. “Stage one is better, while stage four is worse. It involves how big the tumor is and whether it has spread to other areas,” explains Beck. Early detection is the key.

As with any condition, healthy lifestyle choices, such as good nutrition, are said to have a positive impact on colon health. “There is evidence that if you eat a diet high in fiber and lower in red meat and animal fat that your colon will be healthier,” says Beck. Probiotics, or healthy bacteria, is still being researched, but it may also be linked to good colon health.

Still, other factors, over which you have little control, can come into play. “If a family member had colon cancer or if you have had cancer or polyps before, you are at higher risk,” says Beck. Other contributing factors may include being a male or female over age 50, having a sedentary lifestyle or a personal or family history of irritable bowel syndrome.

Treatment usually involves removing the tumor with surgery, and sometimes chemotherapy. “If we catch it early, the operation takes an hour or two. You are in the hospital for a week or so, and then you are all done with it,” says Beck. It can be helpful to join a support group as you go through the experience, so you won’t feel alone.

Take advantage of the fact that March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.  Take the time to talk to a friend or loved one about the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices and knowing the signs of colon cancer. “If you have those symptoms, you need to talk to your physician to make sure it is something minor and not something serious,” reinforces Beck. Don’t be afraid to begin the conversation today.