Sure you’re on top of making doctor’s appointments for the kids—well, usually. But when you’re busy balancing work, family, and everything in between, it’s easy for your own health upkeep to fall through the cracks. Trying to find the time for a colonoscopy seems next to impossible. But Englewood Hospital and Medical Center reminds us that keeping your gut healthy is more important than you may think.
This month is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so we asked Dr. Anna Serur, chief of colorectal surgery at Englewood Hospital, for the latest recommendations about screening and prevention, a topic she says is not often discussed during regular health check-ups.
Q: What’s the most important information to know about colorectal health and cancer risk?
Dr. Serur: Recent data from the American Cancer Society has shown an increased prevalence of colorectal cancer in younger patients, so youth doesn’t get you off the hook! Most people dread having a colonoscopy because they think they know everything there is to it—a difficult preparation that leads to an “all clear.” But the truth is, sparing a few hours to get ready, and just 30 minutes undergoing a routine procedure, could add years to your life. Most people only need to have a colonoscopy every 5-10 years, beginning at age 50, and for African Americans starting at age 45. Screenings may detect abnormalities like inflammation or precancerous polyps that can then be removed, which is cancer prevention at its best. Isn’t it worth investing one day off (and a nice, deep sleep) toward a longer, healthier life?
The most important recommendation to otherwise young, healthy patients is to share all symptoms with their primary care doctors or gastroenterologists. This includes any change in bowel habits, abdominal pain, blood in the stool, fatigue or unintended weight loss. While it may seem embarrassing to talk about, these changes are important for your care providers to know. Many people may assume their symptoms are unrelated to colon health, ignoring signs that there may be something more serious going on. If you experience two or more of these symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor immediately.
Q: What are the causes of colorectal cancer?
Dr. Serur: Family history or genetic risk can be a major factor for people who are diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Colon polyps and genetic conditions, such as hereditary polyposis syndrome, should be actively monitored by a gastroenterologist. Environmental and lifestyle factors including physical inactivity, diets high in processed food and red meat, obesity, stress, alcohol consumption and smoking are also known risk factors for developing cancer. So move more, eat healthier and kick that smoking habit in the cigarette butt! If you’re looking for the motivation to give your New Years resolution another shot, now’s the perfect time. Small changes over time can go a long way when it comes to your colon health.
Q: What are some steps people can take to reduce their risk?
Dr. Serur: Staying active, maintaining a healthy weight and reducing stress can lessen your cancer risk. Rounding out your diet with whole grains, lean proteins and colorful fresh fruits and vegetables is also beneficial, so mix it up and eat the rainbow. Follow up regularly with your primary care doctor, and reach out right away if you notice symptoms. As a colorectal specialist, I work closely with patients’ primary doctors to make sure we’re monitoring those at high risk for developing a GI cancer. Being proactive can positively affect your overall well-being, while minimizing your cancer risk.
Q: For those hesitant to get a colonoscopy, can you offer any reassurance?
Dr. Serur: Think of your colonoscopy as a safe juice cleansing—all the rage lately! The procedure itself is quick and painless. A few tips to make your prep more bearable: stick to a low-fiber diet a few days before; stock up on flavored Jell-O and popsicles (but avoid dark colors); strain the broth from your favorite soup; drink your prep cold and with a straw; and stock your bathroom with a supply of wet wipes and plenty of entertainment. There’s no better time to crack open that book you’ve been wanting to read, or start that series in your Netflix queue. And the more you flush, the better inside scoop we’ll get from your scope.
Also, talk to your doctor about what screening options are right for you. If you’re 50 and older with an average risk for colon cancer—and without symptoms—you may be able to do noninvasive screening, right from the comfort of your home, using stool sample kits that can detect abnormalities. No special prep, no need to take time off—just one flush and you’re done. The only downside? You may not finish that book or Netflix series!
Q: Any advice for managing colon health and cancer risk?
Dr. Serur: The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation—all of these feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut. You know your body best, so listen to it when something feels off. There is, undoubtedly, a gut-brain connection. If you’re looking to manage stress to improve your gut health, try out acupuncture, yoga, massage or meditation. If you’re not sure where to start making changes to your diet, consider nutritional counseling to help improve your eating habits and avoid high-risk foods we encounter every day.
Englewood Hospital and Medical Center
350 Engle Street, Englewood, NJ