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Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths
but early detection results in high cure rates. More importantly, colon cancer can be completely prevented through colonoscopy. Review the digestive system

The best "treatment" of cancer is preventing its occurrence in the first place

Colorectal cancer is a disease in which cells in the colon or rectum become abnormal and grow without normal control or order, forming a mass called a tumor.  These tumors most often start as polyps.  You can have colon polyps and not know it because they usually don't cause symptoms. Screening colonoscopy can detect these polyps before they become malignant.  By removing them, colon cancer can be prevented.  However, if allowed to grow, the cells within the polyps can eventually become malignant and spread to other parts of the body. 

The best treatment of cancer is preventing its occurrence or detecting it early when it may be most treatable. Colorectal cancer is preventable when colon polyps are found and removed. It is also highly curable when cancer is found in its early stages.

The current recommendations are for all patients to have screening colonoscopy at age 50 and every 10 years thereafter. Some physicians, however, recommend more frequent screening at 5-year intervals. Also, those at increased risk for colon cancer may be advised to undergo colonoscopy at an earlier age with more frequent follow-ups. Check with your primary care provider to find out what is best for you.

Colon cancer can be prevented through a procedure known as colonoscopy
Colonoscopy is a test that allows your doctor to look at the interior lining of your large intestine (rectum and colon) through a thin, flexible viewing instrument called a colonoscope. A colonoscopy helps detect ulcers, polyps, tumors, and areas of inflammation or bleeding. During a colonoscopy, tissue samples can be collected (biopsy) and abnormal growths can be removed. Colonoscopy can also be used as a screening test to identify and remove precancerous and cancerous growths in the colon or rectum (colorectal cancer).

Before the colonoscopy, you will need to do a colon prep at home. This takes 1 to 2 days depending on which type of prep your doctor recommends. For many people, the prep for a colonoscopy is more trying than the actual test. Plan to stay home during your prep time since you will need to use the bathroom frequently. The colon prep causes loose, frequent stools and diarrhea so that your colon will be empty for the test. The colon prep may be uncomfortable and you may feel hungry on the clear liquid diet. If you need to drink a special solution as part of your prep, be sure to have clear fruit juices or soft drinks to drink after the prep because the solution tastes salty.

For the procedure, you will be fully sedated and will be pain free. Colonoscopy takes 30 to 60 minutes. The physician will insert a long, flexible, lighted tube into your rectum and slowly guide it into your colon. The scope transmits an image of the inside of the colon, so the physician can carefully examine the lining of the colon. If anything abnormal is seen in your colon, like a polyp or inflamed tissue, the physician can remove all or part of it using tiny instruments passed through the scope. That tissue (biopsy) is then sent to a lab for testing.

You will need to remain at the colonoscopy facility for 1 to 2 hours until the sedative wears off. Someone will need to drive you home and remain with you for the rest of the evening. The next day you should be able to return to your usual routine.

Bleeding and puncture of the colon are possible complications of colonoscopy. However, such complications are uncommon.

Other Preventive Measures for Colon Cancer
  • Avoid excess body fat by limiting caloric intake and/or balance caloric intake with adequate exercise.There is convincing evidence that excess body fat substantially increases the risk for many types of cancer.
  • Exercise: Higher levels of physical activity may reduce the incidence of some cancers. According to researchers at Harvard, if the entire population increased their level of physical activity by 30 minutes of brisk walking per day (or the equivalent energy expenditure in other activities), we would observe a 15% reduction in the incidence of colon cancer.
  • Replace red meat with chicken, fish, nuts and legumes. Studies show that high consumption of red meat can increase the risk of certain cancers.
  • Eat at least 5 servings per day of fruits and vegetables. High fruit and vegetable consumption has been associated with a reduced risk for developing at least 10 different cancers.
  • Quit smoking if you smoke Alcohol in combination with tobacco creates an even greater risk.
  • Limit alcohol consumption Many studies have linked alcohol use to an increased risk of cancers of the stomach, esophagus, liver, breast, and colon.
  • Research shows that men who have two alcoholic drinks per day, and women who have one alcoholic drink per day, have an increased chance of developing certain cancers. The more alcohol a person consumes, the higher his or her risk of developing some kind of cancer.(4)
In the News
Smokers, and those exposed to second-hand smoke, should get first colonoscopy earlier than age 50
Smokers should be screened for colon cancer at a younger age than 50 because they are likely to develop the malignancy years earlier than nonsmokers. In a recent study, current smokers were diagnosed with colon cancer an average of 6.8 years earlier than those who had never smoked. The smokers were diagnosed at age 57, whereas those who had never smoked were diagnosed at an average age of 64. Also, patients who had never smoked, but who had grown up in a house in which their parents smoked, were an average of 8.6 years younger at colon cancer diagnosis than never-smokers without that exposure. MedPage Today/J Cancer Res Clin Oncol 2008

Video Tutorials

Colonoscopy from Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health
Sigmoidoscopy from Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health
Barium Enema from Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health

Internet References

(1) Lower your Risk of Colon Cancer; An Interactive Questionnaire from Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention
(2) Detailed Treatment Guide about Colon and Rectal Cancer from the American Cancer Society.
(3) Colon Cancer from
(4) Alcohol and Cancer from the American Cancer Society
(5) Colonoscopy from NIH, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

--Written by N Thompson, ARNP and M Thompson MD, Internal Medicine, Last updated August 2010

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