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Colon Cancer: risk factors, early detection, symptoms, and healthy habits

Colon Cancer: risk factors, early detection, symptoms, and healthy habits

The recent passing of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman at age 43 has ignited a national conversation around colorectal cancer, specifically the growing number of young people who are affected by the disease. While most cases are found in older patients, there has been about a 51% increase in colorectal cancer among those younger than 50.

This has left many wondering what’s causing the uptick in younger cases and the steps you can take to prevent the disease.

West Jefferson Medical Center Oncologist Dr. James (Jimmy) Ellis shares his thoughts on the rise of colon cancer in younger patients and the importance of screenings.

“Lifestyle factors particularly related to obesity, the fat content of the diet, and lack of exercise or major contributing factors,” explained Dr. Ellis. “When we see younger people getting diagnosed with colon cancer it raises the question of a familial colorectal cancer syndrome. It is of the utmost importance that we understand our family history so that we can adjust our screening program.”

Who’s at risk?

Colorectal cancer has touched many lives across the United States. It is the third most common cancer diagnosis in both men and women and the second most common cause of cancer deaths among men and women.

Here in Louisiana, we have one of the highest colorectal cancer diagnosis rates and the 4th highest death rate in the country.

This type of cancer is also more common among African Americans, and especially more common among those who have a family history of the disease like Dr. Ellis mentioned. Certain types of inherited diseases, like Lynch Syndrome and Crohn’s Disease, can also put you at a higher risk for colorectal cancer.

While the reasons for this are still unknown, certain risk factors that are strongly linked to the disease are also linked to our southern culture, including poor diet, obesity, tobacco smoking, and alcohol consumption.

These facts, coupled with not enough people getting early screenings, have contributed to higher rates across our state and country.

“A large proportion of colorectal cancers can be attributed to lifestyle,” said Dr. Ellis. “The major changes I would recommend pertaining to colorectal cancer would be in diet and exercise.”

“Achieving your ideal body weight with diet and exercise minimizes your risk,” suggests Dr. Ellis. “Exercise in and of itself has benefits in terms of reducing cancer risk. Specific dietary changes of value would be to lower the fat content of your diet.”

Early Detection is Key

The good news is that early detection can significantly increase your chances of survival, which is why regular screenings are highly recommended among people 50 and older.

A study published earlier this year by lead author Dr. Jordan Karlitz found that “colorectal cancer rates among U.S. adults find a 46% increase in new diagnoses from ages 49 to 50, indicating that many latent causes of the disease are likely going undiagnosed until routine screenings begin at 50.”

Because of findings like this and providers seeing increases of the disease in younger patients, the American Cancer Society suggests that people start getting screenings at age 45; however, if you are high-risk for the disease, you should start getting screened earlier.

An important thing to note is that colon cancer does not always produce symptoms, especially at first, which is why regular screenings are so important.

“Screening has value in that pre-malignant lesions such as polyps can be identified and removed. While not all polyps become cancer, all cancers arise from benign polyps,” explained Dr. Ellis. “It takes a great deal of time for the lesion to go from benign to malignant, and therefore there is a window of opportunity to identify the lesions and remove them before malignancy can occur. In addition to removing proven malignant lesions, screening also helps identify cancers at an early more curable stage.”

Learn more about the different types of colorectal cancer screenings.

Know the Symptoms

Colon cancer may cause symptoms, including:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Recurrent stomach pain or cramping
  • Stools narrower than usual
  • Unexplained weight loss

If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms and want to learn about your risks for colorectal cancer, take our Colorectal Cancer Risk Assessment.

This quiz is not meant to provide medical advice or replace your doctor’s expert opinion or care. If you have concerns, contact your doctor to schedule an appointment.

Don’t have a doctor? Find an LCMC Health provider that’s right for you!

6 lifelong habits

While there are many factors that can contribute to colorectal cancer, research shows that the following tactics may help prevent it:

  • Maintain a healthy weight and participate in regular physical activity.
  • Limit your intake of red meat and animal fats.
  • Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Curb your alcohol consumption.
  • Quit (or never start) smoking cigarettes.
  • Take calcium supplements.

Dr. James (Jimmy) Ellis

Dr. James (Jimmy) Ellis was born and raised in Old Jefferson. He graduated from St. Agnes Parochial School and Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, Louisiana. Dr. Ellis received his undergraduate degree in Petroleum Engineering from LSU in Baton Rouge. After graduation, he worked as a drilling engineer for five years with Exxon Mobil in New Orleans. He returned to LSU and attended medical school in New Orleans, graduating as a member of the Alpha Omega Honor Medical Society in 1991. He completed his internal medicine residency, then a fellowship in hematology and medical oncology within the LSU system. Dr. Ellis returns home to Jefferson Parish after 19 years in practice, most recently in Thibodaux, Louisiana. His greatest joys are his four daughters, who are all over the country completing their educations. Dr. Ellis is very active in many fitness activities including karate and yoga. He also loves fishing and spending time at his camp in Grand Isle.