How to cut risk of getting colorectal cancer

BDL Colon cancer

Colorectal cancer often starts with few, if any, noticeable symptoms in its early stages. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Increased urbanisation and adoption of western lifestyle including dietary habits, unhealthy lifestyles and increasing life expectancy is touted as the leading contributor of colorectal cancers.

If you are 45 years and above, regular screening is a crucial step in preventing and detecting colorectal cancer, especially when you may not experience any symptoms.

Here's what you need to know.

What is colorectal cancer and how common is it?

Also known as bowel cancer,it is a type of cancer that begins in the colon or rectum, both of which are parts of the large intestine. It usually originates from the growth of abnormal cells that form a tumour, and if left untreated, these cancerous cells can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.

The exact prevalence rates may vary, but generally, colorectal cancer is becoming more common in African countries.

Are there risk factors for this cancer?

There are many risk factors and the majority of them are preventable. These include obesity, alcohol use, smoking, family history of colorectal or gastrointestinal cancer, changing lifestyle especially urbanisation and adopting western lifestyles characterised by sedentary behaviour and the consumption of processed foods.

Genetic predisposition where family history is a major contributor and limited awareness on the disease and screening are also risk factors. Others include dietary habits with a shift towards diets high in red and processed meats, and low in fibre, fruits, and vegetables, which is associated with a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.

When to screen for colorectal cancer

It is recommended that adults commence regular colorectal cancer screening starting at the age of 45. This proactive approach significantly contributes to preventing colorectal cancer and detecting it at an early, more treatable stage. International health organisations advise individuals between the ages of 45 and 75 to undergo regular screening. For those aged 76 to 85, it is advisable to have a conversation with their doctor about the potential benefits of continued screening.

What to look out for

Colorectal cancer often starts with few, if any, noticeable symptoms in its early stages. Consult with a healthcare professional if you experience any changes in bowel habits, changes in the consistency or calibre of stools, rectal bleeding, abdominal discomfort, unexplained weight loss, weakness and fatigue, iron deficiency anaemia especially due to a gradual loss of blood, leading to fatigue, weakness, and paleness, sensation of not fully emptying the bowel after a bowel movement, changes in bowel frequency and stool that is narrower than usual.

How to live healthy and avert the disease

Here are several lifestyle choices and habits that may help in averting the disease:

Balanced diet: Consume a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Limit the intake of red and processed meats, and choose lean protein sources.

Adequate fibre intake: Ensure sufficient fibre in your diet, as it promotes healthy digestion. Whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are excellent sources of fibre.

Regular exercise: Engage in regular physical activity, such as brisk walking, jogging, or other aerobic exercises. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

Maintain a healthy weight: Strive to maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight or obese is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Limit alcohol consumption: If you choose to drink, do so in moderation. For men, this means up to two drinks per day, and for women, up to one drink per day.

Quit smoking: Quit smoking if you currently smoke. Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Regular screening: Follow recommended screening guidelines for colorectal cancer. Early detection through screening can significantly improve outcomes.

Know your family history: Be aware of your family's medical history, especially concerning colorectal cancer. If there is a family history, discuss it with your healthcare provider, as it may impact screening recommendations.

Limit processed foods: Reduce the consumption of processed and packaged foods, which may contain additives and preservatives.

Public health efforts in Kenya must focus on raising awareness about colorectal cancer, promoting healthy lifestyles, and implementing screening programmes for early detection. Early diagnosis significantly improves the chances of successful treatment and better outcomes for individuals affected by colorectal cancer.

Dr Parkash is a gastroenterologist, hepatologist at Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi.

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