Colon cancer, the uncontrollable proliferation of cells in the colon (or large intestine), affects approximately 150,000 new patients each year in the United States and is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in non-smokers. Mostly preventable through lifestyle choices and regular screening colonoscopies, colon cancer can grow to obstruct the inside of the colon and cause progressive bloating, abdominal pain, anemia, and death. If the cancer is located at the end of the colon in the rectum or sigmoid, there is often bleeding and a history of worsening constipation, but cancers higher up in the colon may initially cause only bloating and may therefore be detected at a later and less treatable stage.

SYMPTOMS

One of the most significant symptoms of colon cancer is bloating, caused by partial obstruction of the bowel from a growing cancerous tumor. Other symptoms of colon cancer include:

  • Persistent abdominal pain
  • Blood in the stool
  • Anemia 
  • Change in bowel habits, including constipation or diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Colon cancer is also a risk factor for developing uterine and ovarian cancers

CAUSES

Colon cancer is preventable in many cases, and lifestyle behaviors, specifically a diet poor in nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods and high in animal fat, and lack of exercise are some of the contributing factors. In fact, studies have shown that switching to a plant-based, nutrient-rich diet can cut colon cancer risk in half, and exercise can decrease the risk of colon cancer by up to 50%, independent of other risk factors like diet and weight. Obesity, belly fat, insulin resistance, and elevated triglyceride levels in the blood are also risk factors.

Lynch syndrome is a form of inherited colon cancer, but it is rare and does not account for most cases of colon cancer. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), smoking, alcohol, and radiation for cancer treatment also increase the risk of developing colon cancer.

DIAGNOSIS

In its pre-cancerous stage, colon cancer may manifest as small, benign polyps in the large intestine that are either asymptomatic or produce very minor symptoms, making early detection a challenge without medical testing. Therefore, in 2008, the American Cancer Society designated colonoscopy (a test used to investigate the colon during which a thin, flexible tube with a camera on its end is inserted into the rectum) the test of choice for colon cancer diagnosis and recommends that everyone over the age of 45 undergo a colonoscopy for screening.

Paying close attention to your bowel habits and the appearance of your stool can also be an important indicator in detecting colon cancer. Early signs of colon cancer in your stool may include:

  • Toothpaste thin stools
  • Blood in the stool or on the toilet paper
  • Black, tarry stools
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Feeling of incomplete bowel movements, even after your bowels are emptied

TREATMENT

If you are diagnosed with colon cancer, the treatment options to consider include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Depending on what stage cancer you are diagnosed with, as well as your health history, you and your doctor will work together to arrive at the best treatment. Although lifestyle modifications (including a healthy diet, regular exercise, and stress reduction) may not cure your cancer, they’re an excellent place to start in optimizing your gut and immune health. 

Studies have shown that switching to a plant-based, nutrient-rich diet can cut colon cancer risk in half, and exercise can decrease the risk of colon cancer by up to 50%, independent of other risk factors like diet and weight.

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