As women, we have a lot on our super-sized plates. Because taking care of family while juggling a career and other obligations is a way of life for most of us, the challenge becomes advocating for our own health and wellness.
It’s critical for women to take charge of their health by being informed and involved—bodies change over time, and it’s never too late to adopt healthy, life-affirming habits including diet, regular exercise, and working to lower health risks, such as not smoking. Being proactive—and developing a good partnership with a healthcare practitioner— increases a woman’s odds of aging well and maintaining a better quality of life.
According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in men and women combined in the U.S. Colon cancer is highly preventable with early screening—which helps detect polyps before they become cancer—and a healthy lifestyle.
As a Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) who helps support and educate women of all ages on healthcare, I encourage my patients to take inventory of their colon health.
The 4-1-1 on colon cancer
Signs and symptoms of colon cancer include a change in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation or a change in stool consistency; rectal bleeding or blood in the stool; persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas or pain; a feeling that your bowel doesn't empty completely; weakness or fatigue; and unexplained weight loss. Many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease and when symptoms appear, they'll likely vary, depending on the cancer's size and location in your large intestine.
If you notice any symptoms of colon cancer, such as blood in your stool or a persistent change in bowel habits, make an appointment with your healthcare provider.
Early detection saves lives
One of the top six health tests for women are colorectal screenings, recommended starting at age 50, unless there is a family history of the disease or other risk factors. With regular screening, colon cancer can be found early, when treatment is most effective. In many cases, screening can prevent colon cancer by finding and removing polyps before they become cancer.
And if cancer is present, earlier detection means a chance at a longer life—generally, five-year survival rates for colon cancer are lower the further advanced the disease is at detection: Over 90 percent of those diagnosed when the cancer is found at a local stage (confined to colon or rectum) survive more than five years. Once colon cancer is diagnosed at a regional stage (spread to surrounding tissue) that rate drops to 70 percent. When the cancer has also spread to distant sites, only 13 percent of those diagnosed will reach the five-year survival milestone.
In addition to this important tool for detecting cancer, incorporate these lifestyle essentials into your routine for optimum colon health.
Dump bad habits
Quit smoking and reduce alcohol use—both of which can increase your risk of colon cancer.
Dump a sedentary lifestyle
The centerpiece of nearly every healthy lifestyle is exercise—just 30 minutes a day, most days of the week, although 60 minutes is recommended. Moderate-intensity activities such as brisk walking may be sufficient, although there is more benefit with increased intensity. Exercise changes your body’s digestive acids, which is believed to provide some protection from colon cancer. Decreases in body fat, insulin, and other growth factors also may contribute to exercisers’ lower colon-cancer risk. Current research is also uncovering new ways in which physical activity cuts cancer risk—from reducing chronic inflammation to improving DNA repair.
Dump a low-fiber, high-fat diet.
Colon cancer and rectal cancer may be associated with a diet low in fiber and high in fat and calories. Although research in this area has had mixed results, some studies have found an increased risk of colon cancer in people who eat diets high in red meat. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables and lean protein in lieu of processed and fast food. And drink plenty of water—the amount depends on your size and weight, activity level, and geographic location. In general, drink between half an ounce and an ounce of water for each pound you weigh, every day.
And remember, if you are 50 or older, bottoms up: Get screened. Early screening saves lives.