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Colorectal cancer, which develops in the colon or rectum, is almost entirely preventable. All you have to do, experts say, is get screened.  

“The beauty of colorectal cancer screening is you can prevent the disease from ever happening,” says Jeffrey Okun, MD, a gastroenterologist at Summit Health. “When you think about most other cancers, they are typically discovered when it is too late.”

Yet, an estimated one in three adults, age 50 to 75, have never been screened. Colorectal cancer remains the third most common and deadly cancer in the nation. Here are five life-saving tips to prevent colon and rectal cancer before it begins. 


Get Screened on Time and Regularly

Most medical guidelines recommend screening regularly between the ages of 50 and 75 years. There is some evidence that routine screening should begin at age 45, especially if you are  African American. People with other risk factors for colorectal cancer such as a family history of cancer, having inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, or a history of polyps may also benefit from earlier screening. It is recommended that you review your risk factors for colorectal cancer with your provider to determine the best age to begin screening.


Know What Tests Are Available

There are several tests used to screen for colorectal cancer, including colonoscopy and stool tests.

For decades, colonoscopy has been the gold standard for colon and rectal cancer screening saving millions of lives each year. Colorectal cancer starts out as a small growth known as a polyp. Since the disease is extremely slow growing, it takes many years for these polyps to develop into cancer.

Colonoscopy is a safe and effective screening tool that allows your doctor to find and remove these polyps before they become a concern. During the procedure, a flexible tube with a tiny camera is inserted into the rectum that sends images back to a monitor. This procedure stays ahead of the curve—detecting signs of the disease long before symptoms ever begin.

“A colonoscopy is safe, quick, and causes very minimal discomfort. Tens of thousands of individuals are screened every day,” says Dr. Okun. “If everything is normal, you are in the clear for another 10 years. On the other hand, if we catch a polyp early it could potentially save your life.” 

Individuals who are tentative about getting a colonoscopy often turn to stool tests. This screening method  detects abnormalities such as microscopic amounts of blood or abnormal cells in the stool. If a stool test is positive it will require colonoscopy to evaluate the cause.

 “Stool tests have large limitations. They only detect abnormalities that exist—so you are catching something that has already developed rather than preventing it,” he says. “The beauty of colonoscopy is we can catch polyps before they become cancerous and remove them.”


Know Your Family History

Do you know what diseases run in your family tree? Nearly 1 in 4 individuals with colorectal cancer have either an immediate family member or several second-degree relatives, such as uncles, aunts or grandparents, who were also affected. Tell your physician if you have a loved one that has had colon or rectal cancer.

“If your family history puts you at a higher risk you need to be screened sooner—typically around age 40 or 10 years before the youngest person in your family was diagnosed—and potentially more often. You may also want to be more aggressive about reducing other risk factors that are in your control,” says Jeffrey Danzig, MD, a gastroenterologist at Summit Health.


Control Your Weight

Being overweight or obese makes you more likely to develop and die from colorectal cancer. Fill your plate with veggies, fruits, and whole grains. Avoid too many red or processed meats. Staying active is also important. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of intense aerobic activity a week.

Stop Smoking and Limit Alcohol

Kicking bad habits can stamp out many types of cancer. A recent review in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that a diet high in red meat and drinking over four alcoholic beverages per day increases the risk of colon cancer. While eating food high in fiber and calcium, reduces risk.

If you are having trouble quitting smoking or reducing alcohol intake, Summit Health offers several smoking cessation programs. Research also shows that limiting your alcohol consumption can help keep your colon and rectum healthy. Men should not exceed more than two drinks per day and women should stick with only one.