I’m healthy and young – Should I still screen for colon cancer?

I’m healthy and young – Should I still screen for colon cancer?

Colon cancer affects mostly older men, but increasingly more younger adults are getting diagnosed too.

As a male, you must have heard that colon cancer affects about 1 in 22 men and is the number one cancer in Singapore. If you have a family history of colon cancer, your chances of getting this condition increases. 

Colon cancer typically affects older adults, but it can occur in any age group. As a healthcare professional, I’ve seen many cases where patients could have avoided many difficulties had they gone for testing early. This is why regular health screenings are imperative. 


What is colon cancer?

Colon cancer is a type of cancer that usually starts in your large intestine or colon. For those of you who don’t know, the colon is the final section of your digestive system. Colon cancer is sometimes referred to as colorectal cancer, which is a general term that combines rectal cancer and colon cancer. Rectal cancer starts in the rectum. In the last few years, Singapore has experienced a dramatic rise in the incidence of colorectal cancer and this is today the most frequent cancer for both genders combined. 

Colon cancer usually affects older adults, even though it can occur at any given age group. On most occasions, it begins as tiny, noncancerous clumps or benign cells referred to as polyps that form on the inside of your large intestine or colon. 

Over time, some of these polyps can become colon cancers. Polyps can be small and exhibit very few, if any, symptoms. It is for this reason that doctors highly recommend routine screening tests as a way of preventing colon cancer because it helps in the identification and subsequent removal of polyps before they actually become cancerous.


What are the risk factors for colon cancer?

First and foremost, it is imperative to note that a risk factor simply refers to anything that increases your chances of contracting or getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors, such as: 

  • Smoking
  • Age
  • Family history
  • Diet 

While some risk factors such as family history or age cannot be changed, others like smoking and diet can be – so choose wisely! 

When it comes to colon cancer, there are several risk factors that enhance an individual’s chance of developing this condition. These risk factors are backed up by several clinical studies and include: 

Being obese or overweight

If you suffer from weight problems, or are simply overweight, your risk of developing and dying from colon cancer is relatively higher. It is also worth mentioning that being obese increases the risk of the colon as well as rectal cancer in both genders, even though the link somehow seems stronger in males. So what does this mean? You don’t have to follow the fitspo lifestyle (though there’s nothing wrong with that) – just stay at a healthy weight, and this can dramatically help you reduce your risk. 

Sedentary lifestyle

If you are someone who loves a sedentary lifestyle, it is high time you start getting active. Research shows that those who aren’t physically active are increasingly more likely to suffer from colon cancer. Routine moderate to vigorous physical activity may help minimize your risk – so get moving! I recommend clocking in at least 10,000 steps everyday if you don’t exercise – that’s the bare minimum. 

Smoking

Research also shows that those who have smoked tobacco for an extended period are increasingly likely to develop and die from colon cancer. Although smoking is a well-known risk factor for lung cancer, it is linked to a host of cancers too. So if you’re a smoker, you will have to quit to help lower your risk of colon cancer and other cancers.

Some types of diets

Research tends to show that a diet that is high in red meats, including liver, pork, or beef, and processed meats such as hot dogs may increase your risk of colorectal cancer. What’s more, cooking meats at relatively higher temperatures has been shown to create chemicals that might potentially raise your colon cancer risk. However, it is not clear how this occurs. 

Having a low blood level of vitamin D can also enhance your risk of developing this type of cancer. As a rule of thumb, I recommend following a healthy, well-balanced diet that includes lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and reducing your intake of processed meats as well as sugary drinks.

Picture of healthy meal

Alcohol 

Colon cancer has also been linked to either moderate and heavy alcohol use. As a result, it is not advisable to drink alcohol, whether in larger or smaller amounts.

Age

Your risk of colon cancer increases as you age. While younger adults can get it as well, the disease is much more common after 50. Regardless, it is worth noting that colorectal cancer is rapidly rising among young people too!

A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

If you are suffering from or have suffered from IBD, your risk of colon cancer is relatively higher. IBD is a condition whereby the colon is inflamed for an extended period. Usually, those suffering from IBD end up developing a condition known as dysplasia, a general term used to describe the cells in the colon’s lining that seem abnormal but aren’t cancerous. However, with time, they can become cancerous.

A family history of either adenomatous polyps or colorectal cancer

Research has proven that nearly one in every three people who develop this type of cancer have other family members who have suffered from colon cancer. In this regard, those with a history of colorectal cancer in the first-degree relative (parent, child, or sibling) are at a higher risk. Your risk becomes even higher if that relative of yours was diagnosed with cancer when he/she was younger than 50, or if more than one first-degree family member was affected.

Having an inherited syndrome

Nearly 5% of individuals who develop colon or colorectal cancer have inherited gene mutations or changes that result in cancer syndromes and can potentially lead to them acquiring the disease. The most common inherited syndromes linked with colon cancers are familial adenomatous polyposis and Lynch syndrome, though other rare syndromes can equally enhance your risk of colon cancer as well.

Type two diabetes

Individuals with type two diabetes have an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Both colorectal cancer and type two diabetes have some common risk factors, including a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight.

Gender

Males are relatively more likely to develop colon cancer compared to females. 

However, having a known risk factor (e.g. family history) doesn’t entirely imply that you will get the disease. Some people who catch the disease may never display any known risk factors too. 

Doctors highly recommend that those with a relatively lower risk of colon cancer should consider colon cancer screening at the age of 50. On the other hand, those with increased risk such as individuals with a family history should consider going for cancer screening sooner!

As explained previously, there are a number of things you can do to minimize your risk of colon cancer, including eating a healthy diet featuring a variety of fruits, whole grains, and vegetables while minimizing your intake of processed and red meat, limiting your alcohol consumption, quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and taking part in routine moderate exercises. 

If you suspect that you might have colon cancer, or just want peace of mind, don’t hesitate to visit your doctor for consultation and examination.


References

  1. Wong, M. T., & Eu, K. W. (2007). Rise of colorectal cancer in Singapore: an epidemiological review. ANZ journal of surgery, 77(6), 446–449. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1445-2197.2007.04092.x
  2. Recio-Boiles, A., & Cagir, B. (2021). Colon Cancer. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. 

This article was written and medically reviewed by Dr Ben, M.D on 13/09/21