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Preventing colon cancer during Colon Cancer Awareness Month

As the third most diagnosed cancer in the United States, colon cancer is increasingly a cancer affecting younger Americans, with 12% of diagnosed colon cancers occurring in patients under 50 in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to exacerbate this increase. “During the pandemic, a lot of people are delaying preventive care and not seeing their doctor or getting colonoscopies. We’re unfortunately finding colon cancer at later stages, which is therefore difficult to treat,” notes Dr. Amit Aravapalli, a gastroenterologist at Tryon Medical Partners. What are the best steps that you can take to prevent and detect colon cancer?

Colonoscopies are the gold standard for prevention and detection; start getting yours at age 45.

Taking time to get colonoscopies starting at age 45 (a change from 50 recently made by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force) is the best way to ensure that you are preventing and detecting colon cancer. “This is one of the few cancers you can prevent,” Dr. Aravapalli emphasizes, underscoring that a colonoscopy is the gold standard. During your colonoscopy, doctors find and remove colon polyps before they have the chance to grow and transform into colon cancer.

Before scheduling your first colonoscopy, make sure that your insurance will cover the procedure at the age of 45. While most major insurances are now onboard with covering colonoscopies at the age of 45, there are still some plans that do not have that benefit. Be sure to call your insurance’s benefit line before scheduling.

A common complaint that Dr. Aravapalli hears is that prepping for colonoscopies can be unpleasant. Luckily, there are a few tricks that make prep easier than it used to be, allowing you to get through prep and into your colonoscopy quickly. 

Cut back on red and processed meats.

As tempting as it may be to hear the sound of sizzling bacon first thing in the morning, eating excessive amounts of red and processed meats (including steak, sausage, hamburgers, cold cuts and bacon) can increase your chances of getting colon cancer. 

“Every 1.8 ounces a day of processed meat increased risk by as much as 16 percent, while eating more than about 17.5 ounces of red meat a week was labeled a ‘probable cause’ of colorectal cancer,” warns the Washington Post.

Work with your doctor to create substitutes for red and processed meats. Incorporating more chicken, fish and vegetarian options can help you stay away from heme iron, a nutrient found in red and processed meats that potentially speeds up the growth of colorectal tumors.

Consider reducing your alcohol consumption and try to quit smoking.

Drinking two or more alcoholic beverages a day has also been linked to increased risk of colon cancer, as has smoking cigarettes. While the evidence is more proven for men than for women, it is a good idea to cut back on your alcohol consumption if you find yourself consistently drinking two or more drinks per day every day of the week. In addition to decreasing your chances of developing colon cancer, a reduction in alcohol consumption can also help to reduce your chances of developing other serious medical conditions. With mocktails becoming increasingly popular, try substituting in these alcohol-free drinks when you can and work to reduce smoking.

Work to maintain a consistent exercise routine.

Overall, those who exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight are less likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer. While formal exercise is important, any type of physical activity (like mowing your lawn or giving your child a piggyback ride) can serve as protection against colon cancer, with the World Cancer Research Fund Network study finding that the most active people have a 20% lower risk of colon cancer than those who are least active. For ideas on good physical activity that you can incorporate into your daily life, see these tips for safely exercising after 65 (pointers that can be used at any stage of life).

Schedule a meeting to talk with your primary care doctor about screening for colon cancer.

During this Colon Cancer Awareness Month, take time to set up an appointment with your primary care doctor to discuss a plan for colon cancer screening. By setting up colonoscopies starting at age 45, you increase your chance of catching and treating anything that arises early. Reach out to your Tryon Medical Partners doctor and easily book your appointment today.