Colorectal Cancer: Prevention and Treatment

August 17, 2015 (Updated: August 3, 2019)
Lily Moran

You can wake up one day with a headache or sore throat.

You can’t wake up one day with colorectal cancer. It takes thousands of days—up to 15 years—for colorectal cancer to become a life-and-death struggle. And each day comes with many chances to prevent it from ever happening.

What is colorectal cancer?

There’s colon cancer, in the large intestine, and there’s rectal cancer, in the last few inches of the colon. We refer to them together as colorectal cancer.

We’re not sure why colorectal cancer begins, but we do know it starts with small, noncancerous clusters of cells called polyps. Over time, often with very few obvious symptoms—some polyps become cancerous.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take, starting right now, to help prevent this potentially deadly disease.

Detecting colorectal cancer

As I mentioned, there are often no symptoms of what might become colorectal cancer. But see your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • Persistent diarrhea, constipation or a change in the consistency of your stool (this happens to all of us from time to time…but be wary of persistent changes)
  • Bleeding from the rectum or bloody stool
  • Chronic stomach discomfort, like cramps, gas, or pain
  • Feeling that your bowel doesn’t fully empty
  • Weakness or fatigue for no clear reason
  • Weight loss for no clear reason

Your symptoms are more likely to be early warnings if you are:

  • Over 50—that’s when most, but not all, diagnoses occur. But don’t think you’re too young—cancer doesn’t care about your age.
  • African-American—unfortunately you have a greater risk than people of other races.

The same applies if you have:

  • History of colorectal cancer or polyp: Past exposure means you’re at greater risk in the future.
  • Constipation: Stresses your colon and immune system, increasing many risks.
  • Inherited syndromes: Your genetic makeup can increase your risk.
  • Family history: If you have a parent, sibling or child with the disease, your risk increases.
  • Unhealthy environment or lifestyle: Persistent exposure to environmental carcinogens, an unhealthy diet, or sedentary lifestyle increase your risk.

Two additions to these lists deserve their own space.

Food allergies do more than cause physical symptoms—they disrupt your entire immune system, leaving you terribly vulnerable to whatever trouble is nearby.

Antibiotics wipe out all of the good bacteria in your gut, which must be rebuilt with probiotics from scratch—immediately. Nothing leaves you more defenseless.

Screening to prevent colorectal cancer

Screening tests can detect colorectal and many other cancers in their formative stage—well before they can wreak havoc on your life.

I highly recommend the Cancer Profile developed by Dr. E.K. Schandl. It can detect the earliest symptoms of many cancers. I require it of all my patients and urge you to find a doctor who can administer it.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends either annual fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy every five years, or colonoscopy every 10 years, starting at age 50 (40 if you have an immediate family member who has been diagnosed).

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Refusing screening is dangerous

Tragically—and stupidly—a staggering number of adults don’t follow these guidelines. Some 40 percent are not up to date with colorectal cancer screening.

Talk about asking for trouble! Tests are often 100% covered by insurance and may be free or affordable if you’re uninsured.

Many people find the idea of a colonoscopy so unpleasant that they refuse to have one. For them, I recommend a virtual colonoscopy—a non-invasive screening that can detect some, but not all, symptoms of colorectal cancer.

Some is better than none—and is a convincing pro-colonoscopy argument.

Behaving to prevent colorectal cancer

As with many diseases, you’re in control of a lot of the risk factors.

You have a low-fiber diet high in unhealthy processed foods? Research is mixed, but I’m sure it increases your risk of nearly all cancers. Eat healthy. It’s easier than you think.

Sedentary lifestyle?  Don’t just sit there. Regular physical activity—even just a walk around the neighborhood after dinner—may reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.

If you’re obese, you may be in metabolic trouble, but you can work your way out of it. Talk to your doctor about how to safely get into shape.

Meat lover? Processed meats, e.g., bacon and sausage, increase colorectal cancer risk by 21 percent. Red meat has increased risk by 28 percent. Limit your consumption to two to four times a month, as long as it’s properly raised, i.e., grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free.

Grill master? Frequent fryer? These techniques increased risk of several cancers, including colorectal. Cook healthier—try baking or broiling.

Are you a smoker or a heavy drinker?  I’m sure you know better than that.

Curing—yes, you can—colorectal cancer

If you’re already diagnosed with colorectal cancer, ask your doctor about these leading-edge ways to overcome it.

  • Doctors in Malaysia have developed a personalized gut profile that identifies the genes in your DNA and the good bacteria in your gut that play a role in your cancer—and creates personalized countermeasures.
  • The fecal matter from a healthy person can be transplanted into the bowel of a cancer patient with similar DNA, completely changing his or her immune system and preventing the spread of cancer.

Other cures are on the horizon. Until then, pay attention to your body, get tested, and remember that preventing cancer is so much easier than curing it.

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