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Preventing colon cancer

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Prof. Oladapo Ashiru

Many young Nigerians have either died or they have been hospitalised due to colon cancer. Why? It is because nobody likes to talk about bowel movements or cancer and nobody likes to get a colonoscopy.

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the third leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. So that makes it a subject worth discussing.

Although some people consider it embarrassing to talk about colon cancer, it is important to become knowledgeable about it and to undergo a test for it.
Colorectal cancer is also the third most common cancer in both sexes and it is rising at an alarming proportion. This form of cancer does not get as much attention from the media as breast cancer, for example, but it is more common and just as deadly. Even when it does not kill, the consequences of bowel surgery can compromise the quality of life.
Although a family history of colon cancer increases the risk for the disease, it is estimated that 75 per cent of colon cancers occur in people who are 50 years-old or older, who have no family history.

Most colon cancers originate in polyps found in the colon. These polyps are usually benign (not cancerous), but they can become cancerous. Having a lot of polyps in the colon is a risk factor for colon cancer.

A colonoscopy is a colon cancer screening test that checks for polyps in the colon and rectum. However, doctors tend not to recommend a colonoscopy as often as they should because of the embarrassment factor and because a colonoscopy is invasive and uncomfortable: a flexible tube with a tiny camera on it is inserted into the rectum and pushed up into the colon in order to look for polyps and other signs of cancer. There is also an attachment that can snip off polyps, if the doctor thinks this is necessary.

In spite of the discomfort and embarrassment associated with a colonoscopy, everyone should have one when they turn 50, 60 and 70 years-old.
There is another way to test for colon cancer. It is not as direct a test as a colonoscopy and it is not a substitute for a colonoscopy, but it is one that more people are willing to do more often, particularly since it is inexpensive and easy to do.

One of the most common warning signs of colon cancer is blood in the stool. However, there may not be enough blood visible until colon cancer is advanced. That is where the EZ Detect test comes in. It is a simple, inexpensive test that can detect even very small amounts of blood in the stool, and it is available over the counter for home use. These types of tests are called Fecal Occult Blood Tests.

Colon cancer has a 90 to 95 per cent cure rate when caught early and there lies the catch. Many people have no symptoms until the cancer is advanced and that’s what makes it so deadly. Colon cancer is known as the “silent killer”. Unfortunately, colon cancer rates are steadily rising. Early diagnosis (prior to symptoms) could save 90 per cent of people who are afflicted with the disease. Therefore, everybody should undertake early diagnostic screening tests.

If one waits until suggestive symptoms occur (blood in the stool, irregular bowel movements, pain, weight loss), the colon tumour is likely to be advanced and cure much less likely. Obviously, what is needed is a better, less intrusive and less expensive screening test for colon cancer. The Fecal Occult Blood Test can detect hidden blood in the stool, which is one of the first symptoms of the disease, and they can be done at home once a year. But by far, our best option is prevention. Fortunately, we know a lot about prevention. Diet is probably most important. Let’s take a closer look.

Prof. Oladapo Ashiru is the President President Academy of Medicine Specialties of Nigeria; he is also a Fellow of the Metabolic and Endocrine Society of Nigeria (FEMSON), as well as Fellow of the Anatomical Society of Nigeria. 

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