Every organ in a person’s body serves a vital function, and the large intestine, or the colon, is no exception. The colon is the last stop of the digestive tract, and it’s where the last traces of nutrients and water from digested food is absorbed before the body empties the rest out as waste. It should come as no surprise as to why this function is important to any human being, but complications of the large intestine are uncomfortable at best and life-threatening at worst. Complications with the colon may range from diarrhea, cramping, and ulcers all the way up to excess tissue in the colon that turns cancerous.

One of the key ways to combat complications of the colon is prevention through nutrition, exercise, and regular health screenings. Rush University (RU), a health sciences university, outlines dietary measures a person may take to reduce their risk of colon diseases. Risk of colon cancer increases with the daily consumption of red and processed meats. Preservatives and other additives used in the meats are often carcinogens, so it is best to limit meat consumption.

Not only are individuals encouraged to put down the steak in favor of a vegetable, RU also urges people to cut down on sugar, as diets high in sugar and low in fiber are linked to ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. A diet high in fiber, through the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, is linked to overall digestive health. Americans are supposed to eat 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day, but on average consume just 13 grams daily. Fiber aids in bowel regularity which reduces the risk of inflammation in the colon and other complications and discomforts such as hemorrhoids. Additionally, individuals may reduce their risk of digestive complications through the daily recommended intake of calcium and vitamin D.

While nutritional habits play a role in intestinal health, the best way to maintain wellbeing is regular screenings at the doctor’s office. A colonoscopy allows medical professionals to screen for precancerous tissue, called polyps, and remove them before they become malignant. According to the Colon Cancer Foundation, 95% of colorectal (colon and rectal) cancers are curable if they are detected early.

While benign polyps rarely come with any symptoms, cancerous growths manifest noticeable changes in the body. According to the Mayo Clinic, once cancer develops, symptoms include:

● A change in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation or a change in the consistency of stool, that lasts longer than four weeks

● Rectal bleeding or blood in stool

● Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas, or pain

● A feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty completely

● Weakness or fatigue

● Unexplained weight loss

However, the beginning stages of colon cancer often go unaccompanied by symptoms, emphasizing the importance of regular screenings. According to registered dietician Heather Rasmussen, fewer than 10 percent of colon cancers are hereditary, so its occurrence is largely due to lifestyle and lack of preventative measures. Those with a family history of the disease are urged to start screenings before the age of 50, while those with no history are advised to start at 50 years old. Should a person notice the symptoms, they are encouraged to schedule a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible.

While only 10 percent of colon cancers are hereditary, the American Cancer Society (ACS) states colorectal cancer as the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women. The ACS reports 27,150 men and 23,110 women were estimated to die from the disease in 2017.

Nutrition, exercise, and regular screenings are the methods most accepted for preventing colorectal cancers. For people with a genetic disposition toward developing colon cancer, there are medications that slow down the growth of polyps in the large intestine. Those with a family history of colon cancer should be screened well before the age of 50, as individuals with Lynch syndrome may develop cancer under the age of 50, and those with familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) may develop cancer before they turn 40. Both Lynch syndrome and FAP are genetic disorders linked to colon cancer.

The Health Care Collaborative (HCC) of Rural Missouri’s Live Well Community Health Centers are offering fecal immunochemical tests (FIT) to established Live Well patients. The FIT can detect hidden blood in the stool, which may be an early indicator of colon cancer, and is for Live Well patients who are 50 years of age or older, have had colorectal polyps or colon cancer, have a family history of colorectal polyps or colon cancer, or have inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

Through July 2018, Live Well Community Health Centers will provide their patients with FIT tests for only $15 (the retail price being $90), as the test may be administered in the privacy of the patient’s own home.

Colon cancer is a preventable disease. When detected early, curing the disease is faster and easier. Nutritional modifications and regular exercise coupled with regularly scheduled screenings support health and longevity.

Schedule an appointment at your nearest Live Well Community Health Center to discuss your risk factors and bring home your FIT.