Colon Cancer: Can you prevent it?


Patient Education

Colon Cancer: Can you prevent it?

Through the media, we have heard about the number one cancer in Singapore – colorectal cancer, which refers to the cancer of the colon or rectum. Due to the high prevalence of this disease, we may know of someone or heard of someone diagnosed with colorectal cancer. According to data from the Ministry of Health in Singapore, colon cancer is the most common cancer in males and the second most common in females.

What is colorectal cancer?

But what are the colon and rectum? And what are their functions as part of human anatomy? The colon or large intestine is part of the digestive system that comes after the stomach and small intestines. Its role is to dehydrate food remnants and turn it to waste. The colon does this by absorbing water and electrolytes as its muscle system moves the waste along. Concurrently, gut flora residing in the colon feed on the waste and break it down further, completing the chemical part of the digestive process. The colon continues as the rectum, which serves to store the stools before elimination from the body. Colorectal cancer occurs when cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control.

Colon cancer signs and symptoms

In a bid for early colon cancer detection, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer so that appropriate medical advice can be rendered. These signs and symptoms include:

  • Frequent abdominal pain or bloating
  • Change in bowel habits such as diarrhoea and constipation
  • Blood in stool
  • Anaemia
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Fever and pain

If one or more symptoms are persistent and/or progressive, it is time to seek help from a physician.

Who’s at high risk of contracting colorectal cancer?

Your risk of getting colorectal cancer increases as you get older. Other notable risk factors include:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease
  • Family history of colon cancer or colorectal polyps
  • Hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (Lynch syndrome)
  • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
  • Consumption of processed meat and red meat
  • Consumption of meat cooked at high temperatures
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Tobacco use

Prevention tips for colorectal cancer

Just how can we prevent colon cancer then? A key component in prevention is making lifestyle changes and consistently maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It is not an easy feat to make lifestyle changes, so try to make them gradually, and progressively work towards your goal over a period of time.

One important lifestyle change to make is having a well-balanced diet which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. You should try to frequently consume foods that are high in fibre and complex carbohydrates, and low in saturated and trans fats. Some of these foods include legumes, whole grains, and vegetables.

Ensuring high fibre intake is essential as it reduces the risk of colon cancer by increasing stool bulk, diluting carcinogens found in stool, and reducing movement time of stool, thus reducing the contact between carcinogens and the lining of the colon. Some great sources of high fibre foods are whole grain breads and breakfast cereals, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat biscuit, legumes, vegetables such as green peas, broccoli and turnip greens and fruits such as raspberries, pears, and apples.

Avoid consumption of red meats and processed meats (such as ham, bacon, sausages, smoked or salted meats).

Another lifestyle factor that may contribute to the decrease of colon cancer risk is regular physical activity. Incorporating mild to moderate exercise or other forms of physical activities for at least 150 minutes a week can be beneficial. As a bonus, regular exercise also has a host of other benefits that are good for your heart, body, and mind.

As with any lifestyle changes, ease into it slowly and progressively to increase the likelihood of sustaining the habits. If you encounter any side effects from these changes, be sure to consult a physician.

Reduce alcohol consumption and avoid cigarette smoking.

Screening for colon cancer

Cancer screening refers to the process of looking for precancer or early stage cancer in people who do not exhibit any symptoms of the disease. This means screening can help diagnose those with early stage colon cancer to increase the chance of successful colon cancer treatment.

Individuals without risk factors should begin screening at the age of 45, while those with a high risk of colon cancer should begin earlier than 45. A physician will be able to advise when to begin; it might be earlier than required should there be risk factors present, as well as the frequency of screening.

Colorectal cancer screening can be done through a Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) to detect the presence of trace amounts of blood in stool which may not be visible to the naked eye. Low risk individuals aged 45 and above are encouraged to do a FIT annually.

Another form of screening is a colonoscopy. This is a medical procedure that allows the physician to view your large intestine with a colonoscope that is fitted with a camera and light. Colonoscopy is a vital part of colon and rectal cancer prevention as aenomatous polyps can be detected and removed during this procedure. These polyps are responsible for the majority of colorectal cancers and are largely asymptomatic and transform into cancer over a long time. Moreover, during colonoscopy, cancers which have already developed within the colon and rectum can be identified early, allowing for treatment at an earlier stage, leading to higher cure rates. A colonoscopy can also be performed together with a gastroscopy to screen for colon and stomach cancer.

Virtual colonoscopy is one other new technique to consider for cancer screening. It is carried out through a CT scan. However, due to its non-invasive nature, this procedure cannot be used to remove polyps.

Seek early treatment and care

The main focus to prevent colorectal cancer is early detection and treatment. Here at OncoCare, our team of oncologists and consultants are here to help with accurate tests, workups, and a full diagnosis. With experience in diagnosing and treating colon and rectal cancer, as colon cancer specialists in Singapore, we are able to advise on the optimal treatment options.

At OncoCare, personalised care is at the forefront with colon cancer treatment plans personalised for each individual patient. Reach out to us to make an appointment online or call us at +65 62508160.

“Expert knowledge means better care for cancer”

Written by:
Dr Wong Nan Soon
MBBS (Singapore)
M.Med (Singapore)
MRCP (United Kingdom)
FAMS (Medical Oncology)
MHsc (Duke, USA)