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If you are a caregiver, and/or have parents over 50, please encourage them to follow the five steps below.

Colon cancer is probably not your first choice for dinner table conversation. Yet you should be talking about it, especially if you’re over 50 years old, have a family history of colorectal cancer or have certain risk factors.

Colorectal cancer, usually called colon cancer for short, is the third most common cancer in men and women and the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.

Most of the time colon cancer begins as small growths, also known as benign polyps, on the inside of the colon or rectum. Occasionally these polyps can produce symptoms such as bleeding, constipation or blood in the stool. However, they usually don’t result in symptoms and can sometimes go unnoticed. In fact, it can take as many as 10 to 15 years for a polyp to develop into colon cancer.

Unfortunately almost 40% of people do not get screened for colon cancer, even though they are aware that screening and finding polyps early could keep them from getting colon cancer.

What can you do to reduce your risk?

1. Know Your Family History

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults ages 50 to 75 get screened regularly for colorectal cancer. But if you have a family history of colon cancer or other risk factors, your doctor may recommend getting tested before 50 and more often. Ask your relatives about your family history and determine if anyone in your family has ever had colon cancer. A family history of colon cancer puts you at an increased risk of developing the disease.   

2. Talk To Your Doctor

Be aware of any risk factors you might have and discuss with your doctor. Risk factors can include:

  • Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease
  • Certain genetic conditions such as Lynch syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Tobacco use
  • History of colon polyps

3. Determine The Right Screening Method With Your Doctor

Proper and regular screenings are essential in catching the disease early. When colorectal cancer is detected early, the five-year survival rate is nearly 90 percent.

Ask your doctor about the right screening method for you. Colonoscopies are considered the gold standard for detection of colon cancers, If you have no past history of colon disease or polyps, and no symptoms, colonoscopy is covered as preventive with no out of pocket cost for most health plans, for people 50 years and older.  

If you are reluctant to have a colonoscopy because you are concerned about discomfort or cost, there are two alternative screening choices that may be right for you:

  • FIT Test (Fecal Immunochemical Test): The FIT test is done annually in your own home and does not require the preparation that a colonoscopy does. It is also affordable.  Your doctor can tell you more about the benefits of the FIT Test.
  • gFOBT Test (Guaiac-based fecal occult blood test): Similar to the FIT test, this test is done in your home and does not require the preparation that a colonoscopy does.  It should be repeated each year.  Talk to your doctor to find out if this is the right test for you.

While these two tests won’t replace the colonoscopy in all situations, they are very useful tools for finding colon cancer early.  Your doctor can tell you the best screening option for your situation.

4. Talk To Your Family Members

Educate your family members about the risk factors for colon cancer, especially relatives approaching or older than 50 years old. Encourage them to talk to their doctors about getting screened, particularly if there is a family history. Being proactive about screenings can help catch the disease early and significantly improve the chances of successful treatment.

5. Eat Healthy and Exercise Regularly

Completing regular exercise and eating a diet rich in whole grains and fresh produce is a good way to reduce your risk of colon cancer. Aim for more fiber, and fiber content is on all the nutrition labels. Avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can also lower your risk for the disease.

Conversely, lack of regular exercise and a diet high in fat and low in fruits, vegetables and fiber can increase your risk of colon cancer. (Remember the study that came out last year about how bacon and other processed meats can increase a person’s risk of colon cancer by 18 percent?)

Don’t be shy about talking to your family and your doctor. Screening and early detection are key to catching the disease early and saving lives. Your annual physical, which is covered under most insurance plans, is a great time to assess your risk factors and ask your doctor about all of the screening options for colon cancer.

For more resources and information on symptoms, risk factors and screening options visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Cancer Society pages on colorectal cancer.

Dr. Larry Wu

About Dr. Larry Wu

Larry Wu MD is a regional medical director for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and provides consultative services for employee health solutions, prevention, chronic disease, care management, medical expense and utilization management. He is a family physician with over 20 years in clinical practice, has served as clinic director in the Indian Health Service, Kaiser Permanente and Duke Family Medicine and currently maintains a part-time clinical practice.