Jasna Coralic, MD, Colorectal and General Surgery, Columbia St.
Mary’s and Madison Medical Affiliates
Every year, there are approximately 130,000 new cases of colorectal cancer in the United States – with nearly 50,000 deaths. That makes colorectal cancer the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related death.
The numbers are scary. The good news is there are many simple things you can do to help lower your lifetime risk.
To start, let’s discuss colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer occurs when clusters of cells called polyps begin to grow in the lining of the large intestine or rectum. While most of these growths will remain benign, they can become cancerous. Regular colonoscopies every 10 years after the age of 50 are highly recommended and if any polyps are found, they should be removed immediately.
What makes colorectal cancer so deadly is that it often presents without symptoms. Some early warning signs to be on the lookout for include change in bowel habits, rectal cramping or bleeding, blood in your stool, fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss and, in later stages, pelvic pain. If you experience any combination of these symptoms, you should see your doctor immediately.
So, what can you do to help prevent it? Like anything, a healthy lifestyle will go a long way toward lowering your lifetime risk. An unhealthy diet and a lack of physical activity are two primary risk factors for colorectal cancer.
When it comes to colorectal cancer and diet, the thing to avoid is fat – particularly that found in red meat. Many studies point to a connection between a diet rich in red meat and the development of colorectal cancer.
When fat is consumed, a substance called bile acids are released in the digestive tract to help break down the fat. Bile acids have been shown to promote tumor growth in the colon. The more fat one eats, the more bile acids are released and the greater one’s risk. Experts say dietary fat should make up no more than 30 percent of one’s caloric intake.
However, one should not confuse fat with omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are abundant in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and herring, as well as flax seeds, walnuts and canola oil. Omega-3 fatty acids are vital nutrients that have a multitude of health benefits, including reducing one’s cancer risk. To get the most benefit, it’s recommend people eat fish high in omega-3 fatty acids two to three times per week.
Other nutrients that have been linked to a lower risk of colorectal cancer include:
Folic Acid: Citrus fruits, bananas, melons, dark leafy vegetables, broccoli, beans, peas, lentils.
Calcium: Yogurt, milk, cheese, salmon, trout, fortified cereals, soy milk, dark leafy vegetables, white beans, peas.
Vitamin D: Salmon, sardines, tuna, cheese, fortified milk or orange juice, beef liver, egg yolks, sun exposure.
Fiber: Beans, lentils, almonds, whole-wheat grains, barley, bran, raspberries, artichokes, peas, broccoli.
Diet is only half the equation, however. Many studies show a strong link between exercise and a reduced risk for colorectal cancer. And the inverse is equally as true – a sedentary lifestyle increases one’s lifetime risk.
Doctors strongly recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five days a week (or 20 minutes of vigorous activity three days a week). It can be a formal exercise regimen like jogging, yoga or weight-training, or something casual like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or taking the dog on an extra-long walk.
At the end of the day, it’s really no big secret. The things that will lead to better general health – the things you should already be doing anyway – will also dramatically lower your lifetime risk for colorectal cancer. Eat well, be physically active and maintain a proper weight, and you’ll be well on your way to a long and healthy life.
Dr. Jasna Coralic is a colorectal and general surgeon at Columbia St. Mary’s and Madison Medical Affiliates. For more information, call 414-298-7233.
This article appeared in the March 12 issue of The Ozaukee News Graphic.