En español | The recent death from colon cancer of Cornell University president Elizabeth Garrett, just eight months after she became the first woman to hold the post, is a tragic reminder of the country’s second most deadly cancer.
Garrett, who was 52, died just a month after announcing she was undergoing aggressive treatment for colon cancer.
This year, an estimated 95,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer and nearly 50,000 will die from it. While the death rate has been dropping over the past 30 years, thanks to better treatment and more screening, many of those in the high-risk 50-plus age group are still avoiding a colonoscopy. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 90 percent of colorectal cancers occur in people over 50, yet only about half of that age group is being screened.
This, not surprisingly, drives colorectal cancer experts nuts.
Colon cancer is more preventable than other cancers, emphasizes James Church, M.D., who is with the department of colorectal surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. “You can’t prevent breast cancer, lung cancer or brain cancer in the same way. You can’t take precancerous polyps off any of those organs. [Colonoscopy] can really save people’s lives.”
That’s because colon cancer is generally slow-growing and treatable, if caught early. Colon cancer at stage 1 “can mean a 90 to 95 percent survival rate, but for stage 4, when the cancer has already spread, survival is just 5 to 10 percent,” says Dean P. Pappas, M.D., cochief of colon and rectal surgery at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y.
“People think they are protected from colon cancer because they don’t have a family history, or they go to the bathroom regularly without problems, or they don’t see any blood,” says Pappas. But symptoms often don’t appear until the cancer is advanced. “That’s why people must get screened starting at age 50,” he says.
So how do you reduce your risk for colon cancer? Here are seven surprising ways.
Don’t diagnose yourself. Rectal bleeding or blood in the stools is an early warning sign of colon cancer, but Pappas says he often hears people say, “ ‘Oh, it’s bright red blood, so it must just be hemorrhoids,’ ” because that’s something they read on the Internet. He tells patients, “If you see blood, you should always get it checked. Maybe it is hemorrhoids, but better to know that than to miss something serious.” The same applies if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or persistent constipation, he adds. Patients with IBS, chronic constipation or diarrhea, as well as persistent abdominal pain and gas, should see a specialist, as those symptoms can also be due to colon cancer.
Eat more tomatoes. Eating more fruits and vegetables in general has been linked to a lower risk of colon cancer, but tomatoes, especially when they’re cooked, may be one of the most powerful anti–colon cancer vegetables you can eat. The antioxidant lycopene is the natural pigment that gives tomatoes their bright color, and Italian and German studies have found that those who eat the most tomatoes have a substantially lower risk of colon cancer. So load up on the pasta sauce and tomato soup.
Back off the bacon; fix more fish. Diets high in processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, bacon and luncheon meats) and red meat (beef, pork and lamb) have been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. This doesn’t mean you have to become a strict vegetarian. In fact, a 2015 study in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that fish-eating vegetarians had a 43 percent lower risk of colon cancer compared with meat eaters. Strict vegetarians had only a 20 percent lower risk.
Trim your tummy fat. A recent French study found that excess abdominal fat has been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer and that obesity in men, in particular, is associated with a 30 to 70 percent higher risk of colon cancer.
Go for a 21-minute walk a day. Studies show that physical activity can help lower your chance of getting colon cancer, but walking at least 2½ hours a week — about 21 minutes a day — not only lowers your risk; it also makes you less likely to die if you do get colon cancer, according to a recent American Cancer Society study.
Find out about your family. While the general rule is to get screened for colon cancer beginning at age 50, you’re at greater risk if your parents or siblings had it, and you may need to start screening earlier. An estimated 1 in 5 people who develop colon cancer have a family member who had it.
Slash your risk of dying of colon cancer by 53 percent. How do you do this? With a colonoscopy. A study by researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York recently found that having the test slashed your chance of dying by half from the disease. But if you’re still skittish about doing the laxative prep needed for a colonoscopy, Pappas says at least consider one of the other less invasive options. Talk to your doctor about the new at-home stool sample tests or other methods. “They may not be quite as good as a colonoscopy, which is the gold standard, but they’re better than doing nothing,” he says.
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