There is a perception that improving health is difficult. It is possible, though, and each separate action that fosters health often requires little effort. Many doctors who see life-altering chronic illnesses would argue that being unhealthy is actually much harder. By combining easy screenings and prevention strategies, many serious illnesses can be avoided entirely - reducing time spent getting well, medical expenses, loss of independence, and other unwanted repercussions.
Such is the case with colon cancer. There are health strategies that stack the odds in favor of preventing colon cancer, with many requiring minimal extra effort. This article will explain a few proactive activities that can reduce cancer risk, easy-to-do screenings for prevention, effective treatments, and complementary support during treatments.
The Nature of Colon Cancer
Cancer is the abnormal, uncontrolled division of cells, sometimes called "uncontrolled cell growth." In many cancers, the inability to stop growing tissue can form large groups of cells called tumors, affecting the function of the organs in which they grow and the tissues around them.
In colon cancer, the overgrowth of cells affects a part of the large intestine. The colon is the longest part of the large intestine, stretching from the southern part of the small intestine to the rectum (where stool is staged to leave the body). Note that colorectal cancer refers to abnormal growths in both the colon and the rectum, and many use the term interchangeably with colon cancer. However, technically, colon cancer occurs only in the colon.
Are Colon Polyps Dangerous?
Colon cancer often begins its life as a polyp, a non-cancerous growth that forms in the colon's inner lining, growing into the space where stool forms from undigested food. Polyps typically don't start out as cancerous, and many don't even cause symptoms (1). Indeed, there's a large population of people over the age of 50 who have polyps in their colons and are entirely unaware of them.
While all polyps aren't automatically cancerous, they are fertile ground for the cancer process to take over, especially in adenomatous polyps. Adenomatous polyps contain abnormal cells which have a greater tendency to multiply, becoming cancerous. There's a general consensus in the field that greater than 95% of colorectal cancers start out as adenomatous polyps (2). While this statistic includes cancers of the rectum, it can be assumed that all polyps of this type are potentially very dangerous in both the colon and rectum.
Polyps can be found during a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy when a doctor visually inspects the colon using specialized equipment. Some scopes enable tissue to be removed from the colon, so any suspicious polyps found at the time can be removed.
Recognizing Colon Cancer Symptoms
While many may recoil at examining their bowel movements (BMs), they are good communicators of bowel health. Any time some unusual change happens in BMs, it's good to inform a doctor. Blood in the stool is often the alarming symptom that brings people to the doctor, but you wouldn't see it unless you looked at your stool in the toilet after emptying your bowels.
It's essential to know that the early stages of colon cancer often lack noticeable symptoms. That's why screening is crucial to self-care! If there are symptoms, they might include (1, 3):
Blood when wiping or bloody stool; a pink cloud around stool in the toilet
An increase in runny stool (or its opposite, difficult-to-pass stool)
Any bowel activity that is different from your "normal"
Abdominal upset - cramping, frequent flatulence, aches
Feeling like you can't completely empty your bowels
Fatigue, loss of muscular strength
Unexplained weight loss
Digestion disturbances - nausea, regurgitation
Iron deficiency with or without anemia
Who is at Greatest Risk for Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer diagnoses are analyzed for patterns to determine risk to specific populations. Having the following characteristics increases the risk of colon cancer (3):
Over the age of 50
Family history of polyps or colon cancer
Certain medical conditions, including some genetic diseases, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a high number of adenomatous polyps or untreated polyps, type 2 diabetes
Heavy alcohol consumption
Lacking exercise or frequent movement
A diet low in fiber and/or high in processed meats (examples: bologna, pepperoni, salami, hot dogs)
Low blood levels of Vitamin D
Exposure to known or potentially cancer-causing substances (heavy metals, nitrates, and nitrites in foods)
The cause of any cancer (uncontrolled cell growth) is a complex issue. Certain genetics, poor diet, lack of exercise, age, and exposure to known or potentially cancer-causing agents can all increase risk. While having specific characteristics can increase the risk, it doesn't mean cancer will always occur. The other side of the coin is that cancer can form in those with no risk factors at all. Typically, the conversation centers on screening for detection and avoiding or reversing risk factors, if possible.
Prevention: Stacking the Odds in Your Favor
There are many ways to reduce the odds of getting colon cancer. Please see our previous article, Can We Prevent Cancer? which covers the following ways to reduce cancer risk: nutrition, detoxification, sleep, and taking vitamin D3 supplements. In addition to these fundamental, easy changes, the following strategies focus on colon cancer.
1. Screening/early detection (4)
Screening is essential to prevention. Suspicious colon polyps must first be detected before they can be removed, and removing these polyps reduces the odds of colon cancer. Easy, non-invasive colon cancer screening tests can be performed at home or the doctor's office. The fecal immunochemical test (FIT) involves scraping a small sample from the stool and shipping it off for analysis.
The FIT is recommended for those who are 45 and older. A positive FIT would indicate a need for a closer look by colonoscopy, which is more invasive but gives a doctor a direct look at the colon lining and any polyps present. Other stool tests can be used for screening, for example, the guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) and those that examine DNA in the stool. A doctor can recommend the best test for your circumstances because certain conditions may distort the results and require a colonoscopy instead.
Colonoscopies are recommended for adults over the age of 45 and under 75 (5). More information about colonoscopies can be found here.
2. Shedding excess weight & moving more
There is a correlation between obesity and cancer risk. Obesity is highly associated with 13 different types of cancer (6). Tied closely to this is the frequency and vigorousness of exercise. Shedding excess weight from your frame through improved nutrition and frequent activity (vigorous enough to result in sweat) effectively reduces cancer risk, and the risk of many other chronic illnesses. Temecula Center for Integrative Medicine (TCIM) has professionally-led, customized programs to support healthy weight loss. There is no need to run a marathon or work out at a gym, and simple walking can significantly boost metabolism and help shed excess weight.
3. Limiting certain high-risk chemicals in food and drink
Removing excess alcohol - High amounts of alcohol statistically increase cancer risk, including colon cancer risk (3).
Reducing processed meats and red meats (1) - Unfortunately, these popular foods are associated with increased colon cancer risk. It could be the effect of chemical preservatives within the foods, such as nitrates and nitrites. There also may be a genetic component to why red meat is correlated with colon cancer risk, or it could be that a compromised gut cannot properly break it down.
Reducing sugar in the diet - Cancer growth needs a lot of energy, and sugar is the perfect fuel for cancer. Eating a low-sugar diet can remove cancer's fuel supply.
4. Increasing cancer-fighting food and drink
Certain foods slow uncontrolled cell growth or are "antiangiogenic" (starving the blood supply to cancer) (7).
Adequate fiber is associated with reduced risk for cancer (1). Certainly, fiber helps store toxins for removal through the waste, and fiber bulks up the stool, making it easier to pass.
Bright-colored fruits and vegetables that contain cancer-fighting anthocyanins, lycopene, or beta-carotene. Red, blue, and purple berries, green spinach, purple cabbage, red tomatoes, and orange carrots all contain anti-cancer properties (8).
Green tea is widely used for its antioxidant properties and contains chemicals that slow cancer growth (9).
5. Expelling toxins (detoxification)
A heavy burden of toxins can wear down the immune system, distracting it from addressing cancer formation. It is necessary to reduce the amount of toxins in the body through proper elimination; sweating, regular bowel movements, and other methods.
Regular bowel movements (without straining) are essential. Many harsh toxins leave the body through stool, so alleviating constipation is vital. Work with a doctor if necessary to correct the flow of this detoxification pathway. It's also important not to strain to eliminate waste, which puts high pressure on the intestines, weakening areas that could grow polyps.
Sweating from exercise or saunas helps remove the burden of toxins from the body.
Detox supplement kits can support the liver's ability to expel toxic chemicals. TCIM practitioners can make recommendations for full-body detoxification using professional strength nutritional supplements.
IV therapy or ozone therapy can assist anyone and are especially beneficial for those who have had poor health for a long time. A jump start for detoxification can be achieved through IV therapy or ozone therapy.
Treatments for Colon Cancer
Conventional treatments for colon cancer include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. The functional medicine approach to cancer is to find and address its root cause. Integrative medicine would then blend the best Western conventional treatments with complementary medicine to address that root cause. Removal of suspicious polyps is undoubtedly an important step, and depending on the severity, chemotherapy and radiation might be necessary. In that case, TCIM would give a referral to an oncologist (a doctor who specializes in treating cancer).
Integrative Medicine Treatments for Colon Cancer
Interestingly, certain approaches for preventing or treating colon cancer can also complement or help increase the effectiveness of conventional surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
1. Inflammation reduction strategies - Inflammation is a necessary and expected part of healing, but it can also become a chronic condition that hurts more than helps. Sometimes, it is helpful to interrupt the cycle of chronic inflammation with anti-inflammatory medication or supplements. From the holistic realm, turmeric, with its active ingredient curcumin, is highly anti-inflammatory. IV therapy can also deliver anti-inflammatory ingredients straight to the circulation, making it a highly effective inflammation fighter.
2. Nutritional therapies - Altering the diet and adding nutritional supplements can be powerful healing agents. Reducing sugar in the diet can remove cancer's fuel supply, while adding brightly colored fruits and vegetables can slow the growth of tumors. A low-sugar, anti-inflammatory diet with plenty of fiber and foods that reduce the blood supply to cancer (antiangiogenic) can go a long way towards thwarting cancer. Partnering with one of TCIM’s knowledgeable nutritionists can be very helpful in this regard.
3. Detoxification approaches - Reducing the toxic burden on the body frees up the immune system to focus on fighting cancer. Depending on the circumstances, this might be a mixture of nutritional, IV, or ozone therapy.
4. Oxygen strategies - Cancer seems to thrive in a body that is not well-oxygenated (10, 11). Increasing the oxygen status makes an unwelcome environment for cancer and makes it difficult for cancer to thrive. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy might be an oxygen-boosting strategy, as well as breath work or cardiovascular exercise.
5. Acupuncture can help stimulate the immune system and reduce out-of-control inflammation.
6. Massage can assist the body in removing unwanted toxins and reducing the toxic burden on the body.
Schedule an Appointment or Executive Physical
TCIM doctors have expertise in using advanced screening tools to discover the root cause of bowel issues. If you experience some of the symptoms of colon cancer or have experienced a change in your bowel movements, please schedule an appointment with us to answer your questions and determine the best tests and screenings to help you. If you last had a physical a while ago, consider scheduling a two-step Executive Physical with us.
Getting a firm grip on your health may initially seem overwhelming. However, if you break it down, many approaches to avoiding cancer are simple. We can help you make a plan and support you while you take your first steps. Let us help you move to a low-risk category for cancer and chronic diseases; call us today for an appointment!
Jonathan Vellinga, MD is an Internal Medicine practitioner with a broad interest in medicine. He graduated Summa cum laude from Weber State University in Clinical Laboratory Sciences and completed his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Upon graduation from medical school, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at the University of Michigan. Dr. Vellinga is board-certified with the American Board of Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine.
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