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Colon Cancer: How To Know If You Are At Risk

Written by Dr. Naveeda Adam on Wed, 16 November 2022

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Colon cancer or colorectal cancer is highly prevalent across the globe. It is characterized by the abnormal growth of cells in the inner lining of the colon. That can cause tumours and an array of problems in the colon. It is one of the most common cancers. However, it lacks awareness.

Healthy people can learn about the condition and educate themselves whereas people with symptoms can take prompt action towards treatment. Read in detail about the colon cancer symptoms and causes, risk factors, colorectal cancer screening and colon cancer information

Colon and rectum

The colon is a tube-like part of our digestive system, the longest part of the large intestine. The smallest morsel that we consume, has to pass through our colon. It serves as a final checkpoint for the partially digested food.

The colon makes sure that the right amount of water, nutrients and electrolytes are reabsorbed into our body from the partially digested food and the remaining solid waste is stored into the rectum and passed out through the anus. Hence proper functioning of the colon is vital for our digestive and overall health

Colon malfunctions at times

The colon plays an important role in ensuring that our body utilizes food well. If the colon is not functioning to its full capacity, digestive issues like bloating, gas, pain, constipation or diarrhoea are quick to manifest.

The severity of colon diseases can vary from mildly irritating to life-threatening like colon cancer. Since the colon and rectum lie one after the other, diseases related to them are often clubbed into the colorectal category.

At times, small clusters of cells, called polyps form on the inner side of the colon. Most of them may be harmless. However, over time, some of them may develop to form tumours in the large intestine. This is colon cancer or colorectal cancer.

Colon cancer is highly curable if detected and treated in time. It is important to pay close attention to the symptoms and consult a doctor as soon as possible.

Know the risk factors

People over the age of 50 are generally susceptible to colon cancers, but they can occur at any age due to preexisting bowel diseases or in those having a family history of colorectal cancers.

Obesity, sedentary lifestyle, consumption of processed meat, smoking, and alcohol consumption also pose a risk for the development of colon cancer.

However, these are just some factors that can influence the growth of cancerous cells, in many conditions the diagnosis is random without any preexisting conditions.

Hereditary colon cancer

In people suffering from colon cancer, it is found that in about 25-35% of people the condition was familial, that is they inherited the condition from their family members.

The influence of diseases like Lynch syndrome is significant in the development of colon cancer. Lynch syndrome or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), is the most common cause of colon cancer in the world.

The growth of polyps in the colon, which are nothing but bumpy clusters of cells that grow in the mucous membrane, is linked to the development of colon cancer.

Know the signs and symptoms

Colon cancers may not be detected early. However, with the progression of the disease, symptoms like blood in the stools, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhoea, weakness, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, irritable bowel syndrome, and anaemia may be visible.

It is important to take these symptoms seriously whenever they arise and visit your doctor as soon as possible. Early detection of colon cancer allows more treatment options for treatment and increases chances of survival.

Regular assessment for colon cancer is the key

There is no guarantee to prevent colon cancer. But maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise, healthy habits like avoiding excess alcohol and smoking, having a low-calorie, high-fibre diet that includes mostly fruits and vegetables promotes colon health and may prevent colon cancer.

Since colon cancer may not have early warning signs, regular screening is the key to an early diagnosis. Your doctor may recommend certain screening tests even if you are healthy, with no visible signs or symptoms of colon cancer.

Most people tend to avoid these tests thinking that it's a rip-off but in reality, these tests will help you assess the chances of developing colon cancer. Taking the necessary corrective actions can help in early diagnosis and treatment.

Screening tests to assess the risk

  • Faecal screening: The presence of blood in the stool may require further investigation for colon cancer in the form of colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy
  • Colonoscopy: A tube fitted with a tiny camera is used to take a look at the entire colon and rectum. It enables early detection of polyps which can then be removed by the doctor.
  • Sigmoidoscopy: A slender tube with a camera and light enables one to look inside the rectum and lower part of the colon.
  • Biopsy, wherein a small amount of tissue is removed and studied under the microscope and other tests like CT scan, PET scan, Ultrasound may be recommended in case the doctor detects a polyp or a tumour and finds it suspicious.

For people aged 50 to 75 years, the American College of Physicians recommends,

  • Faecal screening every two years
  • Either a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy every 10 years

Colon cancer is highly treatable at an early stage; hence early screening may help prevent any complications later.

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Dr. Naveeda Adam

Dr Naveeda Adam is currently Medical Officer of the Gastrology Department at the Muhimbili National Hospital, Dar es Salam, Tanzania.

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