Colon Cancer: Batting the Averages

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Like many Americans, baseball player Eric Davis was clueless about colon cancer. "I didn’t know anything about colon cancer, except that I was going to do everything in my power to beat it," he says.

Shortly after Davis’ diagnosis four years ago, surgeons removed a tumor nearly the size of an orange from his abdomen. A month later, he returned to the Baltimore Orioles’ starting lineup. Davis, who has since been traded to the San Francisco Giants, scheduled his chemotherapy treatments around games and amazed his family, teammates and fans with his spirit.

Approximately 149,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with colon cancer — cancer of one, or both of two parts of the digestive tract: the colon and the rectum — and about 56,000 people die of the disease. It is the second most common cause of cancer death in the U.S., and African–Americans seem to suffer from a more aggressive form of the disease than whites.

"When compared to statistics for whites, Blacks have only a slightly higher incidence of colon cancer, but they have much higher death rates," says John Carethers, MD, assistant professor of medicine at University of California at San Diego School of Medicine and the lead researcher of a three–year study looking at colon cancer in African–Americans.

The good news about colon cancer is that it is highly treatable. Understanding the most common colon cancer risk factors can help reduce the chances of getting cancer. They are:

  • family history
  • age
  • previous non–cancerous colon polyps or inflammatory bowel disease
  • high–fat or high–cholesterol diets
  • breast and genital cancers

What are the symptoms of colon cancer?

  • a change in bowel habits
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
  • vomiting
  • blood in the stool
  • abdominal discomfort (gas, bloating, cramps)
  • inexplicable weight loss
  • constant tiredness
  • unexplained anemia

Doctors may suggest one or more of these screening tests as a part of regular checkups:

  • A fecal occult blood test checks for hidden blood in the stool.
  • A sigmoidoscopy is an examination of the rectum and lower colon with a lighted instrument.
  • A colonoscopy is an examination of the rectum and entire colon with a lighted instrument.
  • A double contrast barium enema is a series of x–rays of the colon and rectum. The x–rays are taken after the patient is given an enema with a white, chalky solution that contains barium to outline the colon and rectum on the x–rays.
  • A digital rectal exam is a test in which the doctor inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for abnormal areas.

Through early detection colon cancer can be cured. Since most colon cancers develop from polyps, early detection and removal of these pre–cancerous polyps can prevent the disease. Other ways to prevent colon cancer include:

  • eating a low–fat diet.
  • maintaining a healthy body weight
  • quitting smoking and limiting alcohol intake
  • exercising regularly

"Nobody should die from colon cancer," Davis says. "And nobody should be afraid to be screened. It’s a simple test that could mean the difference between living another four months or a long, full life. I want people to know how important it is for them and their loved ones to get screened. It definitely saves lives."

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