For many years, a "Westernized" lifestyle with its inactivity and poor diet, have been associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. With so many of us overweight and eating poorly, the number of people at risk is considerable. Despite this, gains have been against the disease through awareness and prevention campaigns. This is good news considering that colon cancer is second, whoa, make that the third, most common cause of cancer death in "Westernized" nations.
As a disease associated with "Westernized" living, the risk of developing colon cancer is particularly associated with the following aspects of "Westernized" lifestyle:
- physical inactivity
- low fruit consumption
- low vegetable consumption
- diet high in fats
- diet low in fiber
- high red meat consumption
However, the condition is not only one of lifestyle and those with the following conditions also have a higher risk of developing the disease:
- crohn's disease
- ulcerative colitis
- colon cancer in the family
- prior breast cancer
As well, for reasons that have not yet been determined despite considerable research, those of African ancestry living in Westernized nations have a roughly 25% higher risk than Caucasians and a 50% higher risk than those of Asian ancestry. This suggests that still more research is required to understand the reason for the discrepancies. Studies so far have eliminated differences in obesity
and illnesses as being the cause. However, given the importance of diet in the equation, cultural differences in eating habits might very well be part of the cause.
In the US, there are roughly 150,000 cases annually and about 50,000 people will die. In other western countries like the UK, the numbers are 36,000 diagnosed with 16,000 dying and in Canada 22,000 are diagnosed, and 9,100 will die. Though the numbers in "Westernized" countries are getting better, the number of people dying is still considerable and greater prevention efforts are necessary. Worse still, these "Westernized" lifestyle habits are being "exported" to developing countries with the result being a steady increase in the risks of this disease within these countries.
While exercise levels and diet are effective and well advertised ways to prevent most forms of cancers, screening is very important for early detection of colon cancer. This is because only 1 in 7 cases of colorectal cancer is currently detected in the early phases of the disease where it can be successfully treated more than 90% of the time. In this stage where the condition is often without symptoms, annual checkups with a regular screening for those over 50 are very effective. Given that the disease can often takes 5-15 years to develop, regular screening has a pretty good chance of detecting the condition when it can be treated easily.
That said, it is very important to suggest to your doctor that screening be performed. Based on research from the University of California Davis Medical Center, more than 50% of people over 50 visiting their doctor more than once per year were not asked to undergo screening. This means that for many of our doctors colon screening is not on their minds without a friendly reminder.
Given all of this encouragement until now, one of the primary problems in getting more of the population to be screened, has been the screening process. The concept of getting a device pushed through the anus deep into our lower intestines is an anxiety-inducing procedure that many also associate with considerable pain. Though this is a case of our minds creating a monster worse than the reality, there is pain and science recognizes that were people less tentative about the procedure, more lives could be saved.
To that end, alternative tests are being researched for their effectiveness in detecting colon cancer in the early stages. As of last year, the National CT Colonography Trial, an effort contributed to by a number of US centers, determined that the CT scan (a form of X-ray imaging) was an effective alternative to the traditional colonoscopy procedure. The only drawback is that compared to standard colonoscopies, this is a relatively expensive procedure. However, it is one valid option.
The second promising alternative to colonoscopy being researched at Tel Aviv University is an inexpensive blood test that detects the cells of common intestinal polyps: the non-cancerous growths that may lead to colon cancer. The intent of the research is to allow the simple and highly accurate blood test to be used first. That way, only those with the blood test results showing risk will need to get the colonoscopy. This should reduce much of the hesitation with respect to getting the procedure.
Though science and society are winning the war on colon cancer with knowledge and prevention, defeating the disease requires more preventative and screening efforts. As is always the case, patients must be their own advocates by looking after themselves and remembering that their doctors are doing their best but are considering many patients. Take the initiative to get yourself checked out so you are one of the positive statistics.
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