Cancer Colon Cancer Health Conditions Hub

Colon Cancer 101

The third-deadliest cancer disproportionately affects African Americans

It may not be high on our list of hot topics, but we need to talk about colon cancer. We’ve made significant decreases in colon cancer death rates over the past 20 years, but it is still the third-deadliest cancer in this country for both men and women. Not surprisingly, black folks have the highest rate of colon cancer and we are more likely to die from it.

That’s the bad news. The good news: Colon cancer is preventable with routine screening. And if it’s found early, it’s treatable. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, when found and treated early, the five-year survival rate for colon cancer is about 90 percent.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so we offer this advice for preventing the disease or catching it early:
Know your risk factors. These include a family history of colon or rectal cancer, a history of polyps in the colon or rectum, having ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, or being obese. Men are more likely to receive a colon cancer diagnosis. Some data suggests that a diet high in red meat increases the risk of colon cancer, as does heavy drinking and smoking. (More recent data calls the red meat link into question, however.) And race is also a risk factor. A 2010 study found that many African Americans don’t know much about colon cancer, don’t know if they have a family history and are less likely to be screened.

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Talk to your doctor about getting tested. There are five types of screening tests:

  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy. A slender tube is inserted through the rectum into the colon so doctors can perform a visual exam of the rectum and lower third of the colon.
  • Colonoscopy. A direct exam of the colon and rectum. If polyps are discovered, they are removed. Though the general rule is to have a baseline screening at age 50, some experts suggest that black folks have their first colonoscopy at age 45 because of our increased risk of developing the disease.
  • Double-contract barium enema. A radiological exam of the colon in which barium sulfate is introduced through the rectum and spreads throughout the colon.
  • CT colonography. A fairly new test that provides detailed, cross-sectional 2D or 3D views of the colon and rectum with an x-ray machine connected to a computer.
  • Fecal occult blood test. An at-home kit from a health-care provider that can detect blood in the stool.

Stay on top of your screenings. If your baseline screening is fine, you should repeat your colonoscopy once every 10 years. A sigmoidoscopy is performed every five years and the fecal occult blood test every three. Note that your risk increases with age, so be sure to talk to your doctor about more frequent screenings.

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Know the symptoms. The most common symptoms of colon cancer are rectal bleeding, blood in the stool or a change in bowel habits. Other symptoms include lower stomach cramping, long-term constipation or diarrhea, an unnecessary urge to have a bowel movement and unintentional weight loss.

Eat a high-fiber diet. Research suggests a diet high in fiber (oranges, almonds, raspberries, peas, carrots, sunflower seeds, whole-wheat flour) can decrease your risk of developing colon cancer.

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