The recent loss of legendary actor Chadwick Boseman to colon cancer at the young age of 43 reminded us the importance of getting screened for colon cancer must be done sooner rather than later.
Colon cancer disproportionately affects African Americans, who are 20% more likely to get colorectal cancer and about 40% more likely to die from it than most other groups, according to the American Cancer Society. In honor of March being Colon Cancer Awareness Month, now is the time to prevent colon cancer and talk about the different ways to do it.
A colonoscopy is the gold standard for colon cancer screening
The gold standard for colon cancer screening is the minimally invasive colonoscopy. The guidelines of when to start screening have lowered to age 45 for those with average risks, including for colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is a quick procedure where the physician uses a tiny scope to look for any signs of colon cancer in the colon, such as certain types of polyps. Sometimes the physician would biopsy a small tissue sample to further assess the colon. It is a painless process done with sedation.
A colonoscopy is done every 10 years; yet, depending on your risk factors such as family history or your own medical history, it can be done more frequently for closer monitoring. For this reason, everyone should know their entire medical and family history as well as discuss with their provider when and how often they should have their colonoscopy screening.
Fecal occult blood test and Stool DNA test are other ways to screen for colon cancer.
The fecal occult blood test is a simple test where a stool sample is analyzed for any occult (hidden) blood, a sign of colon cancer. The stool sample collection can be done at home and doesn’t require any prep like with the colonoscopy.
A stool DNA test is similar to the fecal occult blood test, where a stool sample collection is involved. The DNA test takes it a step further and looks for any DNA changes in cells that might indicate the presence of colon cancer.
It’s important to note, these tests are not as accurate at detecting cancers or polyps compared to colonoscopies. In fact, there may be some false positive results. You could discuss with your provider if those options would be best for you.
Eating more fiber and less red meat is key
Eating a well-balanced diet full of fiber is important in preventing colon cancer. Fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, oats and blueberries can help. Conversely, consuming red meat, such as beef and pork, increases risks of colon cancer; therefore, cutting back on red meat or eating white meat, fish or vegetables instead is a recommended lifestyle change.
Knowing your family history can help determine your risk of colon cancer
For many medical conditions, especially colon cancer, it is imperative to know your family history from both sides of your family. If you have a close relative with a history of colon cancer, that could increase your own risk of developing it. It is now more important than ever to have discussions with your family members about your entire medical history. Knowing that can bring clarity to your own risks and help determine how and how often you should be screened for colon cancer and many other conditions.
Being aware of your body can help with detecting any signs of colon cancer
Colon cancer may present in multiple ways, even at its early stages. For this reason, being mindful of your body and noticing any changes could help with early detection and increase chances of possible treatment. Some symptoms of colon cancer are unexplained weight loss, bloody or dark colored stools, persistent abdominal discomfort and persistent change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or change in the consistency of stool. Importantly, if you or a loved one notice any of these changes, you should see your provider sooner rather than later to be evaluated.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has made doctor’s visits harder, we all must act now to prevent colon cancer. Start today by being aware of your body and paying attention to any changes, scheduling an appointment with a provider for evaluation and being screened for colon cancer as recommendations.
Alexis E. Carrington MD is a dermatology resident at George Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C. She completed her Internal Medicine Preliminary year at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine Elmhurst Hospital Program in New York City, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. She also completed a dermatology post-doctoral research year at UC Davis. She has interests in ethnic and medical dermatology, underserved and global health dermatology, and dermatologic surgery.