Dr. Anna Serur, chief of colorectal surgery at Englewood Health, shares the latest recommendations about screening and prevention, a topic she says is not often discussed during regular health check-ups.
What is the most important information to know about colorectal health and cancer risk?
Dr. Serur: Recent data from the American Cancer Society has shown an increased prevalence of colorectal cancer in younger patients. However, most people only need to have a colonoscopy every 5-10 years, beginning at age 45. Screenings may detect abnormalities like inflammation or precancerous polyps—growths on the lining of the colon and rectum—that can then be removed, which is cancer prevention at its best. The most important recommendation to otherwise young, healthy patients is to share all symptoms with their primary care doctors or gastroenterologists. This includes any change in bowel habits, abdominal pain, blood in the stool, fatigue, or unintended weight loss. Many people may assume their symptoms are unrelated to colon health, ignoring signs that there may be something more serious going on. If you experience two or more of these symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor immediately.
What are the causes of colorectal cancer?
Family history or genetic risk can be a major factor for people who are diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Colon polyps and genetic conditions, such as hereditary polyposis syndrome, should be actively monitored by a gastroenterologist. Environmental and lifestyle factors including physical inactivity, diets high in processed food and red meat, obesity, stress, alcohol consumption, and smoking are also known risk factors for developing cancer. If you engage in two or more of these lifestyle habits, you should develop an immediate plan to reduce these risk factors in your life.
What are some steps people can take to reduce their risk?
Staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and reducing stress can lessen your cancer risk. Follow up regularly with your primary care doctor, and reach out right away if you notice symptoms. As a colorectal specialist, I work closely with patients’ primary doctors to make sure we’re monitoring those at high risk for developing a GI cancer. Being proactive can positively affect your overall well-being, while minimizing your cancer risk.
For those hesitant to get a colonoscopy, can you offer any reassurance?
Think of your colonoscopy as a safe juice cleansing—all the rage lately! The procedure itself is quick and painless. Also, talk to your doctor about what screening options are right for you. If you’re 50 and older with an average risk for colon cancer— and without symptoms—you may be able to do noninvasive screening, right from the comfort of your home, using stool sample kits that can detect abnormalities.
Any advice for managing colon health and cancer risk?
The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation—all of these feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut. There is, undoubtedly, a gut/brain connection. If you’re looking to manage stress to improve your gut health, try out acupuncture, yoga, massage, or meditation. If you’re not sure where to start making changes to your diet, consider nutritional counseling to help improve your eating habits and avoid high-risk foods we encounter every day.
Updated February 2023