Why It's Important to Talk About Colon Cancer

We don’t often talk about colon cancer – or colons, for that matter. There are so many other things to talk about with friends and family. And, to be honest, other topics are more appealing or easier to chat about. Plus, talking about cancer can be scary. We may be worried that we will get cancer, or it might remind us of loved ones we have lost or who are suffering. Our discomfort sometimes keeps us quiet. But talking about colon cancer is important, and now is a good time to start the conversation.

So, what is colon cancer? Colon cancer is a kind of cancer that starts in the parts of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract called the colon and rectum. This is where food goes after it has passed through the stomach and small intestine, and right before waste leaves the body as stool. Colon cancer usually starts after a little growth, called a polyp, starts growing in the lining of the colon. Most polyps are not harmful, and lots of people have them. Polyps can grow slowly and can grow for several years before they turn into cancer; some polyps might not ever become cancer. Most of the time, polyps do not cause any symptoms and we might not know they are there.

Even though we don’t hear about it as much, colon cancer is more common than many other cancers. In fact, it is the second leading cause of cancer death. But it doesn’t have to be, because it’s one of the most preventable types of cancer. Each of us can reduce the chance that we will get colon cancer.

A few easy lifestyles changes that are helpful include:

  • Eat more whole grains and less red and processed meat.
  • Drink alcohol only moderately, if at all.  Up to one drink per day for women, two per day for men
  • Exercise more. Try a new class at your local YMCA, or add a walk to your routine.
  • Spend less time in front of the TV.

Remember, every little bit helps.

Another thing you can do is talk to a doctor about getting tested for colon cancer. We call this “screening” because it means checking out people who feel fine and do not have any symptoms. Most people should start getting screened for colon cancer when they turn age 50, but some groups, such as the American Cancer Society, recommend starting screening at age 45. Talk to your doctor about when you should get screened. There are a few different tests that can check for colon cancer, and you can talk with a physician to figure out which option is best for you. If you have any GI symptoms or are just worried, talk to your doctor about things you can do. But remember, screening is important even if you feel fine because the earlier cancer is found, the better your chances are of beating it.

Screening tests can find polyps and remove them before they have the chance to turn into cancer. If colon cancer is found, and it is found early, most people can be treated successfully and survive their cancer. They go on to live long, healthy lives.

So, let’s get the conversation started. If you aren’t yet 45, talk to older friends and family members about colon cancer screening and how you can help them. If you are 45 or older, think about screening for yourself and those you care about. Talk to your doctor about which screening test is right for you, and schedule your appointment. Also remember to find out if you have a family history of colon cancer, and share that with your physician. You might need to be screened earlier depending on your family history.

Colon cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable. We just have to start talking about it and help each other get it done.

Your Disease Risk, a free online personal assessment tool, also helps determine your risk of disease, including cancer, and provides personalized tips for reducing that risk and improving your health. For more information about colon cancer screening, visit Siteman Cancer Center’s colorectal cancer webpage or 8 Ways to Prevent Colon Cancer[JDG1] , or call 1-800-600-3606 for a referral.


Written by Aimee James, PhD, MPH, a cancer researcher at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Siteman Cancer Center. Her research focuses on cancer prevention and control, health disparities and community-based research. Her work focuses heavily on populations traditionally underserved by healthcare institutions and aims to reduce disparities in cancer burden, particularly disparities associated with socioeconomic circumstances or being uninsured. A strong guiding factor in Dr. James’ work is the importance of engaging community members and patients in conversations about the research that affects them.

 [JDG1]We’re looking at changing the recommended age of 50 to 45 in this language.

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