When you gather among your family or circle of friends, does anyone ever ask, “What have your bowel movements been like lately?” If you think that this is an off-limits wellness topic, think again. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, in 2013 an estimated 23,900 Canadians were diagnosed with colorectal cancer and about 9,200 died of it.
Overall, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer in men and women combined. Surprisingly, if the cancer is detected early it’s 90% treatable. Recently, I spoke with Dr. Sapna Makhija, the co-founder of GI Health Centre in Burlington, Ontario to find out more about colon cancer.
Recognize the Symptoms
When it comes to colon cancer most people don’t think about getting tested unless they are having symptoms, which include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath and changes in bowel habits. “You should pay attention to persistent changes that last over six weeks without an obvious cause,” says Dr. Makhija. Don’t be shy about looking into the toilet bowl either. “The key thing to look out for is blood. Does the shape look different?” adds Dr. Makhija. Blood in the stool along with longer, persistently thinner stool could indicate that there is some kind of mass or narrowing of the colon.
But not all changes in bowel habits should have you concerned, though. “Normal bowel habits will always change when you travel or change your diet, “ says Dr. Makhija.
Know Your Family History
People don’t think to get tested unless they are having symptoms that are impacting their wellness. However, colon cancer is known to sneak up on its victims and steal their lives at a lightening bolt speed. That’s why knowing your family history is critical to your chances of survival. “If there is a history of either colon cancer or colon polyps you could require screening at much younger age than what is typically suggested,” says Dr. Makhija.
Doctors typically examine the average 50 year old who hasn’t shown any signs of symptoms, but if you had a parent that has an advanced polyp or cancer at the age of 45, you as a daughter or sibling would require screening at the age of 35.
Increase Your Wellness and Reduce Your Risk
Generally speaking a poor diet coupled with a sedentary lifestyle are the main causes of colon cancer. Smoking the proverbial cancer stick (cigarettes), excessive drinking and eating processed foods are also among the usual suspects of this widespread disease.
Screening is key to protecting your wellness. “Access should not be an issue,” says Dr. Makhija. Yet there are long waitlists across the country just to get a screening. In Alberta, for instance, there is a two-year waiting list. Fortunately, the situation in Ontario is different. In the Greater Toronto Area alone there are three clinics, one of them is the GI Health Centre in Burlington, Ontario. “It will only take a day or two to get an appointment,” says Dr. Makhija. “There are very few places that provide a full-on GI practice. Ours is one of the few and we address all digestive issues that are non-acute,” says Dr. Makhija.
Treatment will vary and will depend on what stage the cancer is found. Traditionally people in their 50s are advised to get a colonoscopy and if there are no polyps found the person is good for 10 years. Conversely, if someone has three polyps they would be asked to get another colonoscopy three years later. As Colorectal Cancer Awareness comes to a close let’s take the topic out of the bathroom and make the issue a year round topic of conversation.