Preventing gut cancer

Cancers of the digestive system can be potentially life-threatening. In Malaysia, colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon and rectum) makes up more than 12% of the total number of recorded cancers.

Alarmingly, the latest statistics show that the prevalence of digestive health diseases is on an upward trend. Colorectal cancer is currently the second most common cancer among men and women.

What is it?

Colon cancer is a disease that affects the colon, or large intestine. It usually starts as a polyp, which is a small growth in the walls of the colon.

Most polyps are benign, but as they grow, they can become malignant and develop into colon cancer. Detecting polyps is your best chance of minimising your risk for colon cancer before it's too late.

Symptoms... or the lack of them!

Colon cancer can be deadly because it exhibits no outward symptoms in the early stages. By the time there are symptoms, the cancer has probably spread to other parts of the body.

Therefore, detecting colon cancer before it starts, or when it is still in its early stages, increases the chances of treating it. One of the best ways to do this is through regular health screenings.

Watch out for these!

There are, however, certain signs that show that something is wrong; seek medical help immediately if you notice any of these signs:

  • Blood in, or on, the stools (bowel motion)
  • A change in normal bowel habit (such as diarrhoea or constipation) for no obvious reason, lasting longer than six weeks
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Pain in the abdomen (frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness, cramps)
  • A feeling of not having emptied your bowel properly after a bowel motion
  • Constant tiredness
  • Vomiting

Are you at risk?

Are you at risk?

Risk factors for colon cancer include:

  1. Age - 50 years and above.
  2. Family history - If your parents or siblings have had colon cancer or polyps, you are at higher risk. If a few members of your family have had the disease, your risk increases even more.
  3. Unhealthy diet - A diet high in fat and calories, and low in fibre.
  4. Unhealthy lifestyle - Smoking and alcohol intake, as well as a sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of colon cancer. Those who are overweight or obese also face an increased risk.
  5. Personal history of cancer - Women who have had cancer of the ovary, uterus or breast are more likely to develop colon cancer.

Prevention is better than cure

In many cases of colon cancer, death occurs because of late diagnosis and treatment. As colon cancer is a preventable disease, you can reduce your risk by:

  • Ensuring regular check-ups if you are above 50 years of age. Check-ups may include a physical examination, a faecal occult blood test, a colonoscopy, chest X-rays, and lab tests.
  • Maintaining a healthy diet. A balanced, nutritious diet will help you keep healthy and cope with the cancer and any side effects of treatment. Take more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and reduce intake of fats and oils.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption and quit smoking.

Colon cancer is a preventable disease and as with any other disease, it is better to be safe than sorry. Act now to prevent colon cancer.

Datuk Dr Muhammad Radzi Abu Hassan is a consultant gastroenterologist and expert member of the Digestive Health Advisory Board. The author is not associated with and does not endorse any brands or products.