It’s been 13 years since America’s favorite morning news anchor threw on a hospital gown and invited the world to watch the first nationally televised colonoscopy.
Having lost her 42-year-old husband to colorectal cancer just two years prior, Katie Couric shelved her modesty and inspired thousands to do the same; researchers even coined a new phrase, “the Couric Effect,” to describe the subsequent rise in colon cancer screenings following the Today Show anchor’s public awareness campaign.
In the decade-plus since Couric bared all, scientists have gained greater insight into the disease, its cause, prevention and treatment. In recognition of National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month this March, learn what you need to know to minimize your risk factors.
Colon Cancer 101
One of the most commonly diagnosed cancers, colorectal cancer is also one of the most deadly. A symptomless cancer in its early stages, tumors typically grow slowly from non-cancerous polyps that develop in the large intestine (colon) and rectum. As a result, colorectal cancer is usually highly treatable if detected early. Unfortunately, according to the American Cancer Society, only half of those who should be screened — adults age 50 and older — are screened, and consequently, just four in 10 patients will be diagnosed at the earliest, most-treatable stage.
In addition to following recommended screening guidelines and knowing your basic risk factors (advanced age, family history), women should be vigilant about the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer, including:
- Blood in the stool
- Abdominal discomfort
- Relentless fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
The diet-cancer link
Fortunately, there are preventive measures you can take today to help prevent colorectal cancer from forming in the first place. For example, research has solidified a strong link between diet and colorectal cancer. Foods that contain dietary fiber have been shown to offer protection, while other foods, like red meat, processed meat and alcohol have been shown to increase your risk of getting the disease.
The experts’ prescription for a meal plan to scrub your pipes clean:
- Stick to a predominantly plant-based diet rich in beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables to ensure you are getting adequate fiber.
- Limit deli meats and hot dogs; opt for chicken and fish over beef.
- Swap your beer stein for a frosty glass of milk every so often, as research also suggests that milk and calcium-rich foods probably offer protection.
Belly fat increases your cancer risk
Being overweight or obese are closely linked to an increased risk of many diseases, including cancer, but abdominal adiposity — i.e., that stubborn muffin top — is particularly troublesome when it comes to colorectal cancer. Research reveals that your risk for developing the disease increases as your waist circumference (or waist-to-hip ratio) increases. The reason? Scientists speculate that visceral fat around the midsection has a unique ability to stimulate inflammation, which may promote cancer growth. Guidelines developed by the American Institute for Cancer Research suggest women aim for a waist circumference of 31.5 inches or below.
An aspirin a day keeps the polyps away?
Research is ongoing to determine if pharmacological interventions can reduce the incidence of colorectal cancer — particularly for those identified as high risk as a result of family history. One recent study of subjects at increased colorectal cancer risk due to an inherited genetic syndrome revealed that consuming 600 mg of aspirin a day (about eight baby aspirin) for two years cut their risk of cancer in half.
A daily aspirin regimen is just one of the many treatments being explored. Other drugs or supplements that show potential promise in lowering colorectal cancer risk, include:
- Vitamin D supplements
- Calcium supplements
- Prescription NSAIDs, like Celebrex
- Statin drugs, like Crestor
Although these exploratory findings are encouraging, they are preliminary at best, and risks may outweigh potential benefits. Talk with your health care provider before initiating any new intervention.