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Check for colon cancer, and stay in the pink


March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Yes, we know what you’re thinking: Another month, another issue I have to think about. Yes, it is, and we’re hoping you pay close attention. This is all about your health.

Colon cancer is sometimes called colorectal cancer, a term that combines colon and rectal cancer, which begins in the rectum. Colon cancer starts in the large intestine, more commonly known as the colon — the final part of the digestive tract. Colorectal cancer typically affects older adults, though it can happen at any age. It usually starts as small, benign (noncancerous) clumps of cells called polyps that form on the inside of the colon. Over time, some of the polyps can mutate into cancers.

There is a subtlety to recognizing colon cancer. Polyps may be small and produce few, if any, symptoms (see list below). For this reason, doctors recommend regular screening to help prevent cancer by identifying and removing polyps before they become cancerous.

If colon cancer develops, many treatments are available to help control it, including surgery, radiation therapy and drug treatments such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. However, unlike, say, breast cancer, with its many national and regional organizations, there are comparatively few colon and colorectal cancer groups. One exception is the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable, which has more than 100 partner members across the nation.

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in October, pro athletes wear pink-accented uniforms to show their support for the battle against this insidious disease. Women are reminded that they can check for lumps, and those 40 and older are strongly encouraged to get mammograms. There are ads everywhere.

But no superstars don a special color for colon cancer, and getting a colonoscopy is the only certain way to determine whether you have colon cancer. Typically, the disease is associated with those over 50, and a colonoscopy isn’t typically recommended until that age, unless there is a family history of colorectal disease. Physicians urge older adults to get colonoscopies, but there are no nationwide campaigns promoting them.

There should be. According to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, there has been an uptick in colon cancer among people in their 20s and 30s without a family history of the disease or typical risk factors. If you are under 50 and are experiencing symptoms, speak with your doctor. Don’t ignore your symptoms.

One factor that increases the risk of colon cancer is being overweight, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. So, if you are older and could lose a few (or many) pounds, be sure to see your doctor.

Otherwise, minimizing the risk of colon cancer is as easy as eating whole grains and high-fiber foods and exercising moderately, including biking (less than 10 mph), walking briskly and playing doubles tennis. Avoiding processed meats and high amounts of red meat, and reducing your alcohol intake, can also help. The American Institute for Cancer Research considers drinking two or more alcoholic beverages daily a contributing factor to colon cancer.

The goal is to keep you in the pink. Brightly colored T-shirts are optional.

The symptoms

A person with colorectal cancer may experience no symptoms or many, including:

• Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool.

• A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrow stools lasting more than a few days.

• Unexplained abdominal pain or cramping.

• A persistent urge to have a bowel movement that does not go away after one.

• Unexplained weakness and fatigue.

• Unintended weight loss.

• A diagnosis of anemia.

• Women — bloating that does not go away or is accompanied by unexplained weight loss.

Contact your doctor if any of these problems are severe or continue longer than you think they should. With rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, tell your doctor immediately.

Source: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center