My older brother has been diagnosed with colon (large bowel) cancer. He’s had surgery, but we’re not sure if there has been some spread already. I am 48 years old; am I at increased risk of this disease? Is there anything I can do to decrease my chances of colon cancer?
By Peter N. Landless and Allan R. Handysides
My older brother has been diagnosed with colon (large bowel) cancer. He’s had surgery, but we’re not sure if there has been some spread already. I am
48 years old; am I at increased risk of this disease? Is there anything I can do to decrease my chances of colon cancer?
Unfortunately, you’re at increased risk of colon cancer, as you have a first-degree relative, your brother, who has been diagnosed with this condition. Cancer of the colon and rectum is usually a disease that occurs in the elderly, but approximately 10 percent of cases occur in individuals who are 50 years of age or younger. We’re not sure of the age of your brother, but you fall into this age category. Although we’re seeing a decreased incidence of colorectal cancer overall, it appears to be increasing in younger people. It’s more common in men than in women, and men tend to develop this kind of cancer on an average of five to 10 years earlier than do women. Large bowel cancers tend to occur approximately five to 10 years earlier in the African American populations than they do in their Caucasian counterparts.
Having a close relative with this diagnosis places one at a two to three times increased risk of colon cancer. Scientific studies reveal that there are a number of predisposing factors associated with a diagnosis of colorectal cancer. These include obesity, lack of physical activity, smoking, alcohol use, and individuals consuming a high-fat diet. Some studies also cite the lack of dietary fiber. The consumption of red meat is associated with a significantly increased risk of colon cancer. The risk is significantly lower in vegetarians, and even in meat eaters it tends to drop as consumption of legumes and vegetables increases.
Recently, large studies have again emphasized the important causal relationship between alcohol consumption and colon cancer, especially in men. This and breast cancer are not the only malignancies associated with alcohol consumption, but the scientific evidence regarding these is strong.
To decrease your chances of developing colon cancer, you first need to be screened by having a colonoscopy. This test allows the physician to
examine the inside of your colon and rectum. It also gives opportunity for the removal of any polyps (small growths), which may predispose to the development of cancer. All adults should begin with screening at 50 years of age, and then every 10 years thereafter. If abnormalities such as polyps are detected, it may be advisable to have this test every five years. It’s also important to note whether there is ever any blood in the stool. There are test kits one can purchase to do an easy and nontouch test for the presence of blood, even if it cannot be seen (occult blood). Blood in the
stool indicates the possibility of bowel cancer, and this sign should never be ignored! Always seek medical advice if you notice blood in the stool.
Other steps you could take include regular exercise, aiming for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking briskly. Increasing the proportion of plant foods in the diet helps to reduce the risk of colon cancer, as does cutting out meat and avoiding alcohol consumption. The daily use of aspirin may also be a preventive measure in people who have significant risk for colon cancer. The daily consumption of aspirin is not benign and may be associated with gastric irritation and bleeding. This should be taken only in consultation with your physician.
All this preventive advice reminds us of the wonderful health message with which this church has been blessed. Seize the day and make the changes—your life may depend on implementing wise choices.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General
Conference Health Ministries Department.
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified
gynecologist, is a former director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.