Colon cancer is scary. It’s the third most common kind of cancer worldwide and the fourth deadliest, up there with the Big C’s of lung, breast and prostate. In 2012 alone, over 8,500 Pinoys were diagnosed with colon cancer; almost 5,000 died of the disease in the same year.
This type of cancer hits the tummy, mostly the large intestine and other parts down there. Victims feel practically nothing until it’s too late. By then, the diseased parts of the patient’s plumbing system, usually the large intestine (bituka), have to be removed.
The patient has to be opened up, the affected section cut out, the ends sewn together, and the opening closed. If he’s in luck, he goes home after a few days with instructions for painkillers, follow-up tests and colonoscopies.
The less lucky may need chemotherapy or radiation. And unfortunately, it’s curtains for some.
March was Colon Cancer Awareness Month, to spread the word that early detection and cure are the way to defeat this silent killer. Even when you feel healthy, look healthy, have no symptoms and your tummy feels fine, devious cancer cells may already be multiplying.
Some things you can’t help. Risk rises with age and varies with sex (men are more susceptible) and race (Asians are luckier).
You’re also on safer ground if your parents never had it.
Other things you can control:
- Colon cancer starts with harmless colon polyps. The wise get themselves screened to see if they have any of those. Getting colon polyps out is quick and simple and reduces risk by over 90 percent.
- Golden girls and boys ought to be screened; risk increases when one gets to 50, and for some, even before then. Ask your gastroenterologist when you should start screening, and what tests might be right for you. Screening is the single most effective measure to avoid developing colon cancer.
You’ve heard these before:
- Exercise and keep slim. Don’t be a couch potato, keep moving, check your body mass index (BMI)—ideal weight depends on height and build, sex and age.
- Eat healthy. That means more fiber—vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and less processed food, red meats, food nitrites and preservatives. Nix the hot dogs, sausages, bacon, luncheon meats, cured or salted meats.
- No smoking. Not only that, keep away from smokers. Inhale their smoke, and it’s as if you’re smoking, too.
- Drink moderately. The American Cancer Society recommends no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. Keep quantity small and drinking sessions few.
And maybe also these:
- Get enough calcium. That’s mainly from milk, cheese, and if your blood sugar is okay, from ice cream, milkshakes, and my favorite, blueberry cheesecake. Apart from strengthening your bones, calcium helps prevent cancer-causing polyps from growing and from recurring (if already removed).
- Don’t go too far, though, because there could be side effects, e.g., too much calcium could cause prostate cancer among men.
- Don’t be sun-shy; kayumanggi is beautiful. Your body cannot absorb calcium unless you have enough vitamin D, which doesn’t come from food—you get it by being in the sun.
Little things mean a lot. Studies show, especially for women, that these lifestyle changes can reduce colon cancer risk by up to 52 percent. Healthier lifestyle improves colon health, and as a bonus, also lowers the risk for other types of cancers and problems like heart disease and diabetes.
There are no guarantees, of course, but you could be saving your life by adopting these small changes into your daily routine.
Alexandra S. Laya, MD, is a graduate of UP/PGH (2001). She went for further training in the United States at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she completed Internal Medicine Residency and Gastroenterology Fellowship. She was a faculty member at U. Missouri-Kansas City Medical School until 2010, when she returned to the Philippines. She is currently a practicing gastroenterologist at St. Luke’s Medical Center, Bonifacio Global City.