The Other Steps To Colorectal Health

Modifying your diet is only one part of colon cancer prevention

When thinking about what is healthy or unhealthy for our colon, one logically considers the food and drink that gets put into it by our appetite. But there are more risk factors at play with colon cancer than food alone. The good news is that, as with your diet, several of them are modifiable. You do have some control. Gastroenterologist Travis F. Wiggins, MD, reminds his patients that they should also modify their physical activity, smoking and drinking habits, and weight.

“Some studies suggest that obesity is associated with a 24 percent higher risk of colon cancer,” Wiggins says, emphasizing how increasing physical activity, both for its own sake and as a method of weight loss, can have a protective effect.

Other less obvious risk factors exist. Everyone knows that smoking and heavy alcohol use are linked to a host of health problems, but many people may be unaware that colon cancer is one of them

“The carcinogens from smoking don’t all remain in the lungs,” Wiggins says. “Some are absorbed into the bloodstream. This creates oxidative stress on cells and their replicative process, which can cause damage to DNA and is inherent in the formation of cancer.”

Heavy use of alcohol may interfere with folate metabolism and absorption. Research has shown that too-low levels of folate may be associated with risk of colon cancer. Dr. Wiggins recommends no more than 2-3 drinks a day for men and 1 a day for women.

Dr. Wiggins’ diet recommendations emphasize natural fiber, which can be found in many vegetables, fruits, and whole grain foods. Red and processed meats, on the other hand, should be minimized.

“The metabolic by-products of meat may play a role as they are digested through the intestine, creating free radicals that can result in DNA damage, which is the underlying mechanism that promotes growth in cancer cells,” Wiggins says.

By being aware of each of these factors and modifying accordingly, people will discover multiple benefits beyond colon cancer prevention.

“Taking certain steps will not only decrease the risk of colon cancer, it will have a tremendous impact on your overall health,” Wiggins says.

Some Factors Cannot Be Changed, But Your Response Can

The risk of colorectal cancer is higher for adults over 50, those with a family history of the disease, and those who suffer from other inherited cancer syndromes or Type 2 diabetes. While these factors are not considered modifiable, there are still opportunities for patients to take action.

“You may not be able to change certain risk factors, but you can be aware of them and do something about how you approach them,” Dr. Wiggins says. For example, children with parents who have been diagnosed with colon cancer obviously cannot change their family history, but they can use that knowledge to help them plan. For such patients, the recommendation is to undergo a colonoscopy ten years below the age of the parent when they were diagnosed. So if your mother or father was diagnosed at age 45, you should consider getting screened at 35.

A colonoscopy is an effective method of screening for colon cancer, but Dr. Wiggins notes that the procedure is not just for detection but prevention as well.

“A colonoscopy allows me to detect polyps at an early stage and remove them,” Wiggins says. Polyps are growths on the lining of the colon that are not yet cancerous.

“By being able to remove the polyps, I can help decrease an individual’s risk of ever getting colon cancer to begin with,” Wiggins says. “That’s my goal with a colonoscopy. I want to find the polyps and take them out, and not have to talk to my patients about having cancer.”
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