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How well do you know your colon?

  • Category: Cancer Care
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Dr. Elyse Bevier-Rawls, MD
How well do you know your colon?

Did you know that March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month? All month long, we’re sharing important info you should know about this fascinating, helpful, but often overlooked organ: your colon!

MORE: Everything you need to know about colorectal cancer

Also known as the large bowel or large intestine, the colon helps us digest food and fuel our bodies. It plays a really important role in keeping us healthy, hydrated, and regular. Yep, we’re talking bowel movements.

After we eat, the food travels through the esophagus until it reaches the stomach, where it starts getting broken down into liquid. Once it’s fully broken down, it moves to the small intestine, where our body absorbs all kinds of good stuff like nutrients and vitamins. What’s left over is mostly liquid—and that’s where the colon comes in. The colon absorbs the water and finishes breaking down any remaining material. It then moves waste along to the rectum, where’s it’s held until we go to the bathroom.

Whoa, tell me more!

The colon is fascinating! Become a colon whiz and impress your friends with these fast facts:

  • The colon is over 5 feet long
  • It’s home to 100 trillion microorganisms known as gut flora
  • Our bodies absorb up to 1 quart of water a day via the colon
  • Everyone’s bowel movement frequency is unique (so it’s important to know what’s normal for you!)
  • The colon is prone to several health conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer

What is colon cancer?

Colon cancer (also known as colorectal or rectal cancer) happens when the body’s normal cells mutate and grow out of control. These rogue cells can form polyps (aka, a tissue clump) that take root in the colon or rectum’s lining. If left to their own devices, these polyps are at risk of becoming cancerous over time.

LEARN MORE: It’s time to stop putting off this important cancer screening

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How can I keep my colon healthy?

Great question. Our colons do a lot for us, and it’s really important to take care of them. Eating plenty of healthy, nutritious foods and staying active is a great start, but there’s more you can do to keep your colon in check. Here’s what the doc recommends:

1. Understand your risk factors for colorectal cancer: Factors that can increase your risk of developing colon cancer include:

  • Family history of colon cancer
  • 50+ years old
  • Being overweight
  • Being sedentary and not getting enough exercise
  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol excessively
  • Unhealthy diets that include a lot of red or processed meats
  • Personal history of type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis
  • Some inherited genetic syndromes like Lynch syndrome (HNPCC) or familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)

2. Know your body: Knowing what’s normal for you is really important, so you can detect when something feels off. Listen carefully to your body, and watch out for these warning signs:

  • Change in bowel habits, including diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days
  • Feeling like you need to have a bowel movement, but not being relieved by doing so
  • Blood in the stool
  • Cramping or stomach pain
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss

While these are things to watch out for, they don’t automatically mean you have colon cancer. Symptoms can also be caused by other conditions such as infection, hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome, or inflammatory bowel disease. If you experience any of these symptoms, the best thing to do is talk to your doc.

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3. Get screened: Screening means looking for a health problem before you show any symptom, so that you can catch and detect issues as early as possible. During screening for colorectal cancer, your healthcare provider will give you an exam, ask you about your health history, and may conduct one or more tests.

The most common screening test is a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is an outpatient procedure where the patient is lightly sedated while a small, flexible tube is inserted via the rectum. The slim, lighted tube will allow your healthcare provider to view images of your colon on a video screen, so that they can detect any abnormalities. Any polyps that are discovered and removed will be sent to a lab for further testing.

Before getting the procedure, you will need to do a bowel prep to clean out your colon so your provider can get a good look at everything. Don’t worry, your doc will give you all the info on how to do this. Remember to bring someone with you during the day of your procedure, so that they can drive you home after the test.

Other less common screening tests may include:

  • Digital rectal exam (DRE): During a DRE, your provider will insert a lubricated globed finger into the rectum. While it sounds uncomfortable, it’s painless and quick.
  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) or fecal immunochemical test (FIT): In this test, your stool will be sent to a lab to be checked for blood that isn’t visible to the eye, also known as hidden or occult blood. Most often, you collect your own stool sample at home using a kit and instructions provided by your doc.
  • Stool DNA test: This lab test looks for DNA changes in cells in the stool. To conduct this test, you will have to collect an entire bowel movement using a special container you insert directly into the toilet.
  • Sigmoidoscopy: This test is similar to a colonoscopy but focuses only on the sigmoid colon and rectum. Patients remain awake for this procedure but may be given medication to increase relaxation.

Getting to know your colon is an important first step in caring for it, so be proud of yourself for taking initiative! If you’ve got more questions, concerns, or want to set up a screening for colorectal cancer, click here. We’re always here to help you—and your colon—stay as healthy as possible. Learn more about colorectal cancer care at University Medical Center here

About Dr. Rawls

Elyse Bevier-Rawls

Elyse Bevier-Rawls, MD is a Colon & Rectal Surgeon with University Medical Center New Orleans. She specializes in all areas of colorectal surgery, with a focus on minimally invasive techniques. She became a healthcare provider to help patients of her community in both benign and cancer diagnosis.