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How to lower your risk for colon cancer

You know colonoscopies are important, but they’re not the only way to prevent colon cancer. Simple lifestyle changes can make a difference, especially if you’re at higher risk.

“There is a genetic component to it,” explains William Norris, M.D., a Piedmont gastroenterologist. If a member of your family has ever been diagnosed with colon cancer, you’re at a higher risk than the general population for developing it.

Colon cancer can be scary to consider, but catching it early is important. Because its symptoms can mimic other disorders, Dr. Norris says, you should discuss gastrointestinal problems with your doctor as soon as possible.

Advanced colon cancer is much harder to treat, so prevention, vigilance and early detection are key.

Lifestyle changes to prevent cancer

Dr. Norris recommends these simple changes for lowering cancer risk:

These changes are good for your overall health, and you can work with your doctor to create exercise plans, maintain weight loss and more.

Symptoms of colon cancer

Many early-stage colon cancers can be totally symptom-free, Dr. Norris says, which is why screenings are so important. But some people with colon cancer may experience:

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Excess gas
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Feeling that your bowels are not empty following a bowel movement

These symptoms could also point to other GI problems, like colitis or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But when people assume a less severe problem, Dr. Norris explains, they may endanger themselves while cancer spreads quietly in the meantime.

Additionally, he points out, colon cancer is not limited only to older people.

“A lot of younger patients are being diagnosed,” he says. “But they might initially brush off their symptoms, thinking that it’s a hemorrhoid or IBS.”

How colonoscopies save lives

Colonoscopies aren’t the most enjoyable procedures, but they are quick and very effective at finding and preventing colon cancer.

“With a colonoscopy, you’re able to visualize polyps, or growths, in the colon,” Dr. Norris says.

Having polyps doesn’t necessarily mean you will get cancer, but doctors will remove polyps they find and biopsy them. This process ensures precancerous growths are removed too.

Dr. Norris finds many patients are hesitant to schedule colonoscopies because they fear the procedure’s prep, which requires drinking a liquid to clear the colon. But Dr. Norris points out that formulations have improved in recent years, and you may not have to drink as much as you think.  

Many people also worry about pain during the procedure, he says. However, patients are sedated during the colonoscopy, which will minimize discomfort.

He encourages patients to talk with their doctors about the procedures. Most people need to start screening around age 45 or 50. However, he says, “if you have a family history of colon cancer, your first colonoscopy is 10 years prior to that person’s diagnosis.”

He also reminds people that although pre-colonoscopy prep may be unpleasant, the screenings save lives.

"If you catch a polyp before it becomes a cancer, the risk of developing cancer at that specific location is gone," Dr. Norris says. "You've eliminated the risk of cancer at that location in the colon."

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