Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Ounce of Prevention: Good colon health is a key to healthy aging

March is National Colorectal Cancer awareness month. It is a time when people are encouraged to talk with their doctor about colorectal cancer screening and get screened for colorectal cancer.

The risk of getting colorectal cancer increases as we age. It is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths for both men and women combined in the United States. About 90% of cases occur in people who are 50 years old or older. However, the cure and even prevention of colorectal cancer is possible with a healthy diet and appropriate screening.

Your daily diet has a huge impact on your long-term health. Some of the foods we eat every day can increase or decrease the risk of illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and even cancer.

For good colon health, consider the following healthy habits.

  • Incorporate fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains in your diet each day. These foods are high in fiber. A high-fiber diet may lower your risk of developing hemorrhoids and diverticulosis (small pouches in your colon). Avoid processed foods such as hot dogs, canned meats and cold cuts.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, enough so that your urine is light yellow or clear like water. The bowel needs water to work properly. Dehydration can lead to digestive problems, constipation and an overly acidic stomach. Avoid sodas and alcohol.
  • Get some exercise every day. Try to do moderate activity at least 2½ hours a week. Or try to do vigorous activity at least 1¼ hours a week. It’s fine to be active in blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day and week.
  • Take a fiber supplement, such as Citrucel or Metamucil, every day if needed. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • Schedule time each day for a bowel movement. Having a daily routine may help. Take your time and do not strain when you are having a bowel movement.
  • Stop using tobacco products.

In addition to a healthy diet, screenings are an important tool in the prevention of colon cancer. Colorectal cancer usually develops from pre-cancerous polyps. Several screening tests detect these polyps including stool studies for blood and DNA, a flexible sigmoidoscopy and a colonoscopy.

“Screenings exist to find the disease before you develop symptoms. Small colorectal polyps and early colorectal cancer produces no symptoms. Early detection of colon polyps or early colorectal cancers is the only way to prevent or cure colorectal cancer,” said Thomas Mazza, MD, colon and rectal surgeon at UPMC.

Once a cancer has grown to a size where it causes symptoms such as “bowel problems” or bleeding, the chance for a cure is greatly reduced.

A colonoscopy is the single best screening exam for colorectal cancer. Unlike other screenings, a colonoscopy allows your doctor to detect and potentially remove pre-cancerous polyps at the same time.

A colonoscopy examines the colon by using a long, flexible, lighted tube called the colonoscope, giving the doctor full view of the entire colon and rectum. During this exam, the doctor can also remove pre-cancerous polyps. The procedure itself takes less than an hour and usually involves sedation.

Dr. Mazza recommends that men and women who have no symptoms and no family history of colorectal cancer should schedule a screening colonoscopy between the ages of 45 to 50.

Patients who test positive with other screening tests for colon cancer (i.e., Cologuard, FIT, etc.) and adults of any age who have symptoms of abdominal or rectal pain, rectal bleeding, or a change in bowel habits should also have a colonoscopy.

However, “some individuals should consider earlier screening,” said Dr. Mazza.

A patient with a family history of colon or rectal cancer or large polyps should be screened 10 years earlier than the age of the family member when he or she was diagnosed, or at age 40—whichever is younger. Adults with familial syndromes such as Lynch Syndrome or Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) Syndrome should also consider early screening. African Americans have a higher incidence of colon cancer and average risk screening should occur at age 45.

While the incidence of colorectal cancer is declining in patients 50 years or older, there is a notable increase in patients younger than 50. Consequently, the American Cancer Society recommends screening all patients of average risk at age 45.

Dr. Mazza also encourages patients to see their primary care provider on an annual basis. Conversations about screening will be a part of the annual appointment for those 50 years of age and older.

For more information on colon health, visit or to schedule an appointment, call 717-232-4567.

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