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About colon cancer

The colon is about six feet long and is the part of the body's digestive system that moves waste material from the small intestine to the rectum. Together the colon and the rectum make up the large intestine also known as the bowel. The small intestine absorbs most of the nutrients from the food you eat and then passes on the leftover waste to the colon and out through the rectum and anus.

Small growths (polyps) can develop inside the colon and rectum. These polyps can turn into cancer if they are not removed. Doctors can remove polyps by performing a colonoscopy, a procedure which involves inserting a tiny tube with a camera and light into the rectum and up through the colon, as shown in image 2 below. Once discovered, the doctor can use a device called a snare to remove the polyp.

There is no single cause of colon cancer, but age is the greatest risk factor. Ninety-three per cent of cases occur in men and women over the age of 50.

Other factors that may increase your risk include:

  • A personal history of polyps or inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease).
  • A family history (two close family members who had colon cancer, or one close family member who had colon cancer before age 60). But it's also important to note that 80 per cent of those who get colon cancer have no family history of the disease.
  • Lifestyle choices about your diet, exercise, alcohol and tobacco use.

There are often no symptoms in the early stages of colon cancer. If you have any of the following symptoms, you should see your health-care provider immediately, as they may be symptoms of colon cancer:

Rectal bleeding or any sign of blood after bowel movements. Unexplained weight loss, tiredness, exhaustion, abdominal pain or cramping. Persistent change in bowel habits, such as:

  • Diarrhea or constipation for more than a few weeks.
  • Stools that are consistently more narrow than usual.
  • The feeling that you are not completely emptying your bowel.

Source: CancerCare Manitoba

You can reduce your risk of colon cancer by getting screened. It is recommended that most people 50 to 74 years of age do a home screening test every two years. Some people may be at increased risk and need colon cancer screening before age 50 or may need a colonoscopy. For more information, speak to your health-care provider or contact CancerCare Manitoba at www.ColonCheck.mb.ca or call 1-866-744-8961.

Wave: May / June 2013

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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