Why is colon cancer so common?
Why do we wait to diagnose cancer rather than try to understand how to prevent it?
What can you do to help yourself prevent colon cancer?
According to the American Institute for Cancer research, nearly 50% of colon cancers are preventable each year through diet, remaining at a healthy weight, and being physically fit.
In fact, many cancers have a preventable aspect to them. Cancers are largely environmental, social, lifestyle influenced, even more so than genetic.
This means that what you do in your daily life, has a huge impact on your preventing cancer in the first place. And if you do end up developing cancer, these healthy lifestyle habits may help you recover more smoothly.
Colon cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, right behind lung, prostate and breast. More than 10,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. While there are more diagnosed cases of breast cancer and prostate cancer yearly, more people die of colorectal (colon and rectal) cancer yearly, second only to lung cancer deaths.
Colorectal cancer is a cancer involving the large intestine, the part of the body known as the colon, and the rectum. Many of the cases of colorectal cancer start out as benign (non-cancerous) clumps of cells, often referred to as polyps. Over time these polyps can become cancerous. Polyps produce few symptoms. For that reason regular screening is recommended with aging, when this cancer is more common.
Your lifetime risk of developing colon cancer is 1:21 for men and 1:23 for women.
Survival rates are based on the stage of cancer you have, when first diagnosed. There are four stages to colon cancer diagnosis.
How is Colon Cancer Diagnosed?
Finding and removing polyps is the main “preventative” strategy in western medicine.
Why Does Cancer Develop In The First Place?
While we don’t fully understand why cancer develops, cancerous cells are being created by the body all the time. Normally when cells become cancerous, they will be killed by cell signaling proteins in the body, such as tumor necrosis factor. In fact, all cells eventually die, it is a natural process of living that cells age, degrade and end up dying, and new cells are there to take their place.
For some reason, people who don’t develop cancer are able to kill the cancer cells before they crowd out normal cells. When cancer becomes detectable, you likely have nearly a billion cancer cells. The body just wasn’t able to kill these cells well enough, from continuing to double themselves. So you end up with more than the body can get rid of. The homeostasis of cell life and cell death is thrown off.
Right now it takes a billion size cell cancerous mass, something the size of a pea, to be detected with current imaging.
As cancer screening & testing increases, imaging will likely improve. In addition, there are lab tests out to see if detection of markers in the blood will help us pick up on cancer before your body produces a billion size “pea” mass.
Many of these are yet to be fully incorporated into the mainstream cancer screening model, even if they have shown some good initial research.
A fecal occult blood test may be the first screening tool you are ever exposed to, and is not specific but if positive would lead to further testing.
A sigmoidoscopy and/or colonoscopy is used to view the rectum, or the colon & rectum to look for polyps or abnormalities. Sigmoidoscopy is often recommended every 5 years, and a colonoscopy every 10 years for those after the age of 50.
There were not really any blood tests routinely used for screening in the conventional medical model. However, carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and CA-19, may be used to track your prognosis and how you are responding to treatment.
Until now. The FDA has passed a blood screening test just recently, known as Epi proColon, which detects methylated septin9 DNA. This test can be used in average risk patients as a screening.
For additional testing, one may consider using “alternative” tests that may be helpful in detecting cancer prior to that pea sized mass. Again these are not routinely used in the conventional medical model, which doesn’t mean they don’t have value:
Colon Cancer and Aspirin?
A recent study of 13,700 participants has shown that those patients with a gastrointestinal cancer, who took a baby aspirin daily, were able to significantly improve their survival rate.
The 3 most common types of gastrointestinal cancers within the study were colon, rectal and esophagus.
Participants who took baby aspirin daily were twice as likely to survive or translated a different way, 28% lived more than 5 years. A five year survival rate for colon cancer specifically is anywhere from 12-90% depending on what stage it is found).
Symptoms of Colon Cancer & Risk Factors
Some signs and symptoms of colon cancer may include:
- a change in bowel habits that last longer than four weeks and can’t be explained by another condition
- any bleeding from the rectum that has not been ruled as a hemorrhoid
- ongoing abdominal pain such as cramps, gas, and/or bloating, not otherwise explained
- unexplained weight loss, weakness or fatigue
- narrowing of stools compared with usual with no alternate explanation (common in celiac disease).
Colon Cancer screening generally begins at age 50.
Depending on other risk factors, such as family history of colon cancer or personal history of digestive conditions, screening may start earlier.
Interestingly, the development of colon cancer is occurring in younger and younger populations.
Two inherited gene mutations can make your risk of colon cancer increase, but remember, this does not mean that you will inevitably develop colon cancer. The two gene mutations include hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAF). With the first genetic condition, folks are more likely to develop colon cancer prior to the age of 50, whereas with FAP folks are more likely to develop colon cancer before the age of 40.
Studies show an increased risk of colon cancer in association with a typical Western diet: this would be akin to high red meat, processed poor quality fats, low fiber, low fruit and vegetable intake, and high in processed foods.
Other risk factors include: age, African Americans decent, a personal history of polyps, inflammatory bowel diseases (UC and Crohn’s), genetics, family history of colon cancer, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, obesity, smoking, and heavy alcohol use. Another risk factor is radiation therapy to the abdomen for other previously treated cancers.
Aspirin may well be a great way to prolong your life once you already have a gastrointestinal cancer
While the researchers point out that a finding like this could improve the lifespan of patients ALREADY diagnosed with cancer, it is always a good idea to be mindful of the difference between treatment and prevention. You may say that the aspirin prevents deaths from gastrointestinal cancer, or better said, prolongs life expectancy. We must be careful and not assume that a baby aspirin a day is really the best PREVENTION for colon or gastrointestinal cancer.
While there is some research to suggest that those individuals susceptible to some hereditary forms of colon cancer would benefit from taking a baby aspirin a day as primary prevention, this isn’t a one size fits all recommendation.
In fact, one of the most common side effects of aspirin is gastrointestinal bleeding. So we say yeah!! for treatment, if you have cancer, some gastrointestinal bleeding is minor. If you are looking to prevent cancer, there are things you are going to want to do that may preclude the letters A-S-P-I-R-I-N.
There is no full proof way to prevent cancer. But there are steps you can take which may greatly reduce your risk of developing cancer, especially colorectal cancer.
All cancers are multifactorial. They involve a combination of genetics, environmental exposure, dietary and lifestyle habits, and social/emotional health and well-being. There are few cancers where X = Y.
Lung cancer is most often caused by smoking, but there are probably many people with lung cancer who have never smoked. For the rest of cancers, it isn’t as clear cut.
So why not do everything in your power to try and prevent it?
It is, after all easier to incorporate preventative strategies, than it is to treat.
1) Limit Red Meat: Yes or No
Red meat contains nitrogen. In fact, all meat protein contains nitrogen, from the nitrogen containing amino acids. Other non-meat foods that contain nitrogen: potato, milk, eggs, cereals and legumes. This comes from amino acids and other nitrogen donors (eg choline).
Yet, often legumes, for their fiber content, are often highly encouraged in a cancer prevention/treatment diet.
What happens is nitrogen increases the formation of N–Nitrosocompounds, and these compounds are highly reactive methylating agents that have a negative effect on DNA in the colon turning gene transcription on and off callously.
Americans have higher rates of colon cancer than other areas of the world and the Standard American Diet, high in red meat and low in fiber, is often to blame.
It was often considered that meat cooked on high heat creates heterocyclic amines (HCA), and that this compound was the cause of increased risk of cancer, but other meats, such as chicken, which also product HCA are not associated with as high a risk as red meat in colon cancer development.
Getting back to fiber: it is interesting to note that in a study looking at a high red meat diet, a vegetarian diet, and a high red meat + high-fiber diet that the most production of these compounds resulted from the high meat only diet. The diet with high red meat and high-fiber still had increased compound formation but was in between the high meat diet and the vegetarian diet. This may give us a clue as to why the Western American diet with such low fiber and high meat consumption is a risk factor for colon cancer.
2) Fiber: shoot for 30-35 grams a day. If you are eating a varied diet with 5+ servings of veggies, a few servings of fruit, and a mix of good quality meats, fermented dairy and whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts, you should be able to meet this goal without much issue. Most Americans consume about 10-15gm fiber daily. If you eat mostly a standard American diet with processed foods and only 1-2 servings of veggies a day (no, corn and potato are not veggies), then you will definitely want to increase your consumption of fiber.
3) 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day may cut your risk of colon cancer by up to 25%. A sedentary lifestyle increases your chances of developing cancer. The body is not meant to sit all day. If you work in an office, try getting out for 30 minutes at lunch, or better yet, ask for a standing desk where you can go between standing and sitting all day long. (link to my article)
4) Vitamin D: 1000IU daily. This is mostly based on epidemiological findings, meaning cultures who consume adequate vitamin D, have lower cancer. Since Vitamin D is great for nearly everything, it is fairly safe to say that it will likely help keep your body strong. Always remember to get your vitamin D checked regularly (two times a year), and make sure to adjust the dose to your needs. Everyone is different and a maintenance dose for one person may not be the same for another.
This analysis even suggests that serum levels of vitamin D above 40ng/ml reduce your risk of cancer by 65%!!! Yes, please. Now that is some prevention I can get down with.
Take home message: get your vitamin D level tested, and find out what daily dosage is going to keep you in the above 40ng/ml range. You owe it to yourself 🙂
Look, you are the best caretaker of yourself. Learn what it takes to keep yourself healthy and take the steps daily.
If you have a regular practice you do, whether it be diet, lifestyle or other to help prevent cancer, please share below.
I hope you have enjoyed.
Until next time.
Your Wellness Expert,