Colon cancer may not run in your family, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe. According to the American Cancer Society, most cases of colorectal cancer occur in people without a family history of the disease. But the good news is you can help dodge this deadly disease by taking the right steps — right now. You may not know it, but your colon and rectum constantly cast off old cells and add new ones. Your body usually does a super job of replacing old or dying cells with just the right number and kind of new cells. But sometimes the orderly growth of cells gets out of control.
You may get cells that grow too fast, cells that grow in the wrong place, or too many new cells. When this happens, the cluster of extra cells is called a tumor.
Colon cancer forms as a benign tumor first, also known as a polyps. If caught early they typically can be removed and not cause many problems. If they’re allowed to grow, some types of polyps may become cancerous.
If caught early, colon cancer is curable in about 90 percent of the people who develop it, but that number drops to 40 percent once cancer spreads to lymph nodes or other organs.
While it doesn’t necessarily mean you have colon cancer, see your doctor if you suddenly experience:
• diarrhea or constipation.
• bloody or narrow stools.
• frequent gas, cramps, bloating, or fullness.
• unexplained weight loss.
• pain or tenderness in your lower abdomen.
No one likes to get a colonoscopy, but this routine screening may save your life. Colon cancer rates have dropped 30 percent over the past two decades in adults 50 and older. Researchers believe it’s because more people are getting screened. Colonoscopies enable doctors to find and remove pre-cancerous polyps. Plus, treatment is more successful when colon cancer is detected early.
The National Institutes of Health says you’re less likely to develop colon cancer if you eat a high-fiber, low-fat diet. That means load up on foods rich in fiber, like barley, bulgur, beans, and whole-wheat flour. Experts believe fiber grabs on to potential cancers in your digestive system and carries them out of your body with waste material. Fiber also encourages a process in your lower intestine that gets rid of certain bile acids that promote the growth of polyps.
You can easily add more fiber to your diet with these nutrition tips:
• Eat fruit like apples and pears with the skin on.
• Enjoy legumes like baked beans and lima beans.
• Graze on greens like spinach and broccoli.
• Toss nuts and seeds on your salad instead of croutons.
• Cook with whole grains like barley and oatmeal and choose whole-wheat bread.
Speaking of apples
The amazing apple — your new ally against cancer. Lady Alice, Granny Smith, and Aurora — sounds like the cast of “Downton Abbey,” doesn’t it? But these are actually varieties of one of the best cancer-fighting fruits around, the apple.
It doesn’t seem to matter if you eat them fresh or dried, or drink the juice — apples can knock out the threat of colon cancer with a powerful punch. You can thank polyphenols, nutrients that annihilate cancer cells before they take root.
Plus, eating apples may help you live longer. Why? Because this humble fruit also battles heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Alzheimer’s.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
Get five or more servings a day of antioxidant-rich deep green, dark yellow, or orange fruits and vegetables for natural cancer protection. Good choices include citrus fruits, cantaloupe, mango, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and squash.
Go easy on processed foods
European researchers found that eating red meat, and processed meat, in particular, can increase your risk of colon cancer. Replace at least some of that meat with baked chicken or broiled fish.
In addition, avoid sugar, white flour, and other highly processed starches. In one study, women who ate the most of these carbohydrates increased their risk of colon cancer almost seven times over women who ate the least.
Get extra calcium and vitamin E
Experts believe calcium may bind to bile acids and ionized fatty acids, keeping them from irritating your colon lining. Surprisingly, supplements of 700 to 1,000 milligrams a day seem to work better than calcium from food.
If colon cancer runs in your family, supplements of other vitamins and minerals, like folate and vitamin E, may help keep you from getting this deadly disease. For example, people who took vitamin E supplements over a 10-year period had a 57 percent lower risk of developing colon cancer. Never take large doses of supplements without talking with your doctor first.
Maintain a healthy body weight
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s an unmistakable link between obesity and colon cancer. Stay physically active. Thirty minutes a day of exercise could lower your colon cancer risk by a whopping 83 percent.
The more alcohol you drink, the higher your colon cancer risk. The ethanol in alcohol naturally breaks down into a toxic chemical that can damage your DNA, increasing your cancer risk. Plus it creates harmful oxygen-containing molecules, called free radicals, that wreak havoc throughout your body.
Reel in protection with fatty fish
Are you a pescovegetarian? A what, you say? Don’t be offended. You are one if you eat only vegetables — that’s the “vegetarian” part — with some fish and seafood thrown in for variety — that’s the “pesco” part. This type of diet is also called pescetarianism, and if you eat this way, you are really giving colon cancer a one-two punch.
Vegetarians already have an advantage over meat-eaters when it comes to colon cancer, with all the natural plant nutrients in their diet. But a study published in the highly acclaimed journal JAMA Internal Medicine showed when veggie-eaters ate fish at least once a month, they slashed their colon cancer risk even more. In fact, pescovegetarians had the lowest colon cancer risk in the study.
Pour a cup of coffee
You may want to drink a lot of strong coffee if you’re fighting colon cancer. A large study out of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute found people with stage III colon cancer were less likely to have their cancer return after treatment if they drank at least four cups of caffeinated coffee every day.
Buttermilk, you say?
Wash away cancer risk with this surprising drink. Forget all those milk mustaches. What celebrities should be touting is buttermilk, the moo juice that’s filled with cancer-fighting fuel.
This creamy, slightly tart beverage contains certain lipid and protein molecules that, in laboratory tests, slowed or stopped the spread of colon cancer cells. In addition, you’ll get a heaping helping of good bacteria, also known as probiotics, with every sip.
These “good bugs” can throw a monkey wrench into the process of forming colon tumors by:
• interfering with cancer-causing enzymes.
• preventing dangerous changes to normal cells.
• lowering bile acid in your colon that can make cells reproduce too fast.
• reducing inflammation.
• speeding waste out of your body so cancer-causing toxins don’t have time to form.
So down a cold cup of low-fat buttermilk, and you also get 8 grams of protein, 28 percent of your daily calcium requirement, and a helping of important B vitamins. All for less than 100 calories.
Regular screening is your best defense, but a few simple adjustments to your lifestyle might help reduce your chances of developing colon cancer.