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How to prevent colon cancer

There are 36,000 new cases of colon cancer in the UK each year. Just under half of affected people will die of the disease, which is a tragedy as colon cancer is largely preventable.

The colon (also called the large intestine, or large bowel) is the lower 4-5 feet of the intestine responsible for making faeces.

Colon cancer arises from pre-existing non-malignant polyps in the colon. Polyps are collections of abnormal cells with a tendency to turn to cancer. Removing them reduces the risk of colon cancer by 80-90%.

The best way to find and remove polyps is by colonoscopy. The polyps are painlessly removed and retrieved to be examined in the lab.

Because polyps rarely cause symptoms, cancer can develop without you knowing. Treated at an early stage, colon cancer is highly curable. However, it often has no symptoms until a late stage, when the chances of being cured are much smaller.

The commonest symptoms of colon cancer are a persistent change in bowel habit, for more than a few weeks, rectal bleeding and iron deficiency anaemia. Most colon cancers do not cause pain and many have no symptoms at all until a late stage.

Who is at risk?

All people are at risk for colon cancer, women almost as much as men. 5% of people will develop colon cancer at some time, mostly aged 50 to 80.

The chance of having a polyp depends on age, but for example, around 5% of people will have an advanced polyp of 1cm diameter or more at age 55. Many more will have smaller polyps with the potential to grow over time. Not all polyps turn to cancer, and it usually takes years for this to happen. However, we routinely remove all polyps because nobody can tell which will become malignant in the future.

People without symptoms or a family history of colon cancer should have a routine colonoscopy at age 50-55. Those with a family history of colon cancer, especially if the relatives are close and young (less than 50) are at substantially increased risk and should start earlier.

What is Colonoscopy?

Colonoscopy consists of examining the bowel with a long flexible telescope. The colon has to be as clean as possible so laxatives are given to empty it, as well as a low fibre diet for a day or two beforehand.

The test usually takes 20-30 minutes, but may be longer if there are several polyps to remove. Removing polyps is painless, but some people want to have a sedative, or need it because the sensitivity of their bowel makes introducing the endoscope painful. The choice about sedation is up to you - you can have it from the outset, or during the test if you feel you need it. It works almost instantly, so you need not fear being in pain.

We are committed to preventing colon cancer and feel very strongly that all people should have a colonoscopy at age 50-55; it makes no sense to die of a preventable disease.

How we can help

Our doctors are expert colonoscopists. We would be happy to see you and advise about colonoscopy, or to discuss other methods of examining the colon. It is best if you have a referral from your GP. Then just phone our secretary on 020 7616 7645 to make an appointment.