Here it is, the end of Colorectal Cancer Awareness month and I’m amazed that there isn’t more actual awareness out there. Unlike breast cancer which has huge support with walks, runs, fundraisers and products with pink ribbons on it; you don’t hear much about colorectal cancer. It’s an embarrassing subject for a lot of people but it’s one of the cancers that has a 90% prevention rate if detected early, so let’s start talking!
The National Cancer Institute of Canada (NCIC) recognizes Colorectal Cancers (CRC) as the third most common cancer and the second most common cause of death from cancer for both Canadian men and women. The statistics are scary and we should take heed:
- 423 Canadians, on average, are diagnosed with CRC every week.
- 175 Canadians, on average, die of this disease every week.
- One in 14 men is expected to develop CRC during his lifetime and one in 27 will die of it.
- One in 15 women is expected to develop CRC during her lifetime and one in 31 will die of it.1
The thing is that CRC is a highly treatable cancer if it is detected early and it is up to 90 per cent preventable with timely and thorough testing or “CRC screening”. Unfortunately as it stands today, nearly half of those diagnosed find out too late.
First off, we need to define what colon cancer actually is. The majority of the time it starts out as benign growths in the lining of the colon called polyps. Over the years, these polyps grow in size and number which increases the risk that the cells in the polyps will become cancerous. Timely removal of these growths – easily done during a colonoscopy – will prevent colon cancer from developing. Polyp removal is usually done during a colonoscopy and the patient is sedated during the procedure. Recovery is very quick and usually pain-free. Polyps are sent for a biopsy and tested for any malignancies.
The next question to address is what causes colon cancer. There is no single cause for developing it but there are some people who are considered to be at higher risk than the general population and they include:
- People with a family history of CRC. If you have a first degree relative (parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, and grandparent) with colon cancer, you should get tested 10 years before his/her age of diagnosis. If he/she was diagnosed at 48, you should be tested when you are 38 years old.
- People who have already been diagnosed with polyps or early stage colon cancer.
- People who have inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease).
- People with a family history of inherited breast cancer, uterine or ovarian cancer.
- Middle-aged people, 50 years and over.
- People with a low fibre diet.
If you are at higher risk, you should talk to your doctor about being screened as soon as possible.
The symptoms of CRC can be confusing because they are not unique to the condition, as you can see from the list below. Many people diagnosed have never had any symptoms or early warning signs. So it’s important to check with your healthcare practioner if you suspect a problem.
- Blood in or on the stool (either bright red or very dark in colour)
- A persistent change in normal bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation or both, for no apparent reason
- Frequent or constant cramps if they last for more than a few days
- Stools that are narrower than usual
- General stomach discomfort (bloating, fullness and/or cramps)
- Frequent gas pains
- A strong and continuing need to move your bowels, but with little stool
- A feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
- Weight loss for no known reason
- Constant tiredness
Fibre can be a key to prevention
If your diet contains too much high fat and red meats with little fiber, you are definitely at a high risk of developing colon cancer. Fat accumulates on the walls of the intestine and rectum, forming lumps of dead cells. Long-term high consumption of red and processed meat increases the risk of rectal and colon cancer. Eating a lot of preserved meats such as salami, bacon, cured ham and hot dogs could increase the risk of bowel cancer by 50 percent.2
On the other hand, fibre can do the opposite. One of the key factors in the prevention of colon cancer is to ensure that you are getting enough fibre each day. According to a recent study, in populations with low average intake of dietary fibre, an approximate doubling of total fibre intake from foods could reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by 40%.3 That’s significant!
Why is fibre so important? It is the janitor for your body. It will soak up and sweep toxins out of your body; it will sweep away debris and give your colon something to work against to keep it strong and healthy.
There are 2 types of fibre, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre can be partially digested and may help to reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood. It also lowers blood cholesterol and delays gastrointestinal transit time which helps digestive issues. Good sources of soluble fibre include oats, beans, legumes, oranges, grapefruit, apples, flax seeds and nuts.
Insoluble fibre is fibre that the body can’t digest and so it passes through the gut like a broom and sweeps away debris and toxic waste. Insoluble fibre helps to keep bowels healthy and assists in the reduction of constipation. It also helps to control the pH balance in the intestines and helps protect against colon cancer. Good sources of insoluble fibre are dark green leafy vegetables, green beans, cabbage, carrots, Brussels sprouts, seeds, nuts, the skins of fruits and Brussels sprouts.
Whole grains are a good source of fibre but with the rise in the rates gluten intolerance it’s important to know which grains are gluten free. Here are a few good choices: amaranth, buckwheat, corn meal (organic), flax seed, chia seed, millet, oats (make sure they are non-contaminated), quinoa and rice (brown and wild are best).
How much fibre should we aim for each day? 30-40 grams for adults, and for kids, you take their age and add 5. So even a 2 year old needs 7 grams of fibre a day for good colon health.
There is a great website called www.nutritiondata.com that can help you to determine how much fibre is in your food and you can make better choices to increase your fibre through your everyday diet. If you are still having issues getting the fibre in, there are lots of good fibre supplements at your health food store. Look for one that has both soluble and insoluble fibre. Flax based is best and some supplements even include healing ingredients like l-glutamine, marshmallow root and slippery elm bark.
Colon cancer doesn’t develop overnight so don’t wait until you notice the symptoms of colon cancer before starting to adopt healthy habits. Eat a healthy diet and take supportive supplements when needed, exercise, have an adequate amount of sleep and do a yearly colon cleanse.
1 Colon Cancer Canada. Fast Facts on Colorectal Cancer (CRC). Available: http://coloncancercanada.ca/fast-facts-on-colorectal-cancer-crc/. Last accessed 18 March 2013.
2 Sahelian, Ray . (2010). Colon Cancer: Natural Treatment and Prevention with Diet, Food, Vitamins, Supplements and Herbs. Available: http://www.raysahelian.com/coloncancer.html. Last accessed 31 Aug 2013.
3 Bingham, SA, et al . (2003). Dietary fibre in food and protection against colorectal cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC): an observational study.. Available: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12737858. Last accessed 18 March 2013.