March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, but it’s not enough to just be aware of colon cancer. To reduce your likelihood of colon cancer, you need to know your personal risk factors, and how the disease can be detected and prevented.

Are You at Risk of Colon Cancer?

You are at a higher than average risk if:

  • You have an unhealthy lifestyle. If you don’t get a lot of exercise, eat unhealthy foods, drink alcohol to excess, or smoke, your chances of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer increase.
  • You are 50 or older. Ninety percent of cases occur in people over 50. However, colorectal cancer diagnoses in the 20-40 age group have risen recently, and research published in theJournal of the National Cancer Institute shows that compared to those born in 1950, people born in 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer, and they have quadruple the risk of rectal cancer. Lack of awareness and regular screenings means diagnoses tend to be made later in this age group, making the prognosis less favorable.
  • You have a family or personal history of colon cancer or polyps. If you have an immediate family member that has been diagnosed with advanced polyps or colon cancer, you are at increased risk of the disease and should be screened earlier. Talk to your family about their medical history, inform your doctor, and get screened as recommended.
  • You are African American. The risk of colon cancer among the African American population is higher than other demographics, so the recommended age to begin colonoscopies for African Americans is 45 years old.
  • You have an inflammatory bowel disease. Individuals who suffer from an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are at a greater risk of colon cancer than the general population. If you suffer from an IBD, talk to your doctor about your risk and get recommendations on the necessary frequency of screenings to reduce your risk.
  • You are having symptoms. If you are experiencing symptoms such as a change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, or unexplained weight loss, don’t wait another minute to talk to your doctor or seek the care of a gastroenterologist. Be your own healthcare advocate! Get second and third medical opinions, if necessary, to get answers and a diagnosis.

Lowering Your Risk of Colon Cancer

While some of the risk factors above can’t be changed, there are preventive steps you can take. A healthy lifestyle will lower your risk, and timely and effective colorectal cancer screenings can help both detect and prevent colon cancer. Early diagnosis and treatment is a major factor in colon cancer survival, so see a gastroenterologist immediately if you have symptoms that concern you.

While at-home colon cancer screening kits may seem convenient, they’re not as accurate or thorough as a colonoscopy and may end up costing you more money. Plus, at-home screenings don’t offer the preventive measures associated with a colonoscopy.

During a colonoscopy, your gastroenterologist can not only check for cancer, but also remove polyps (clumps of cells) that may be cancerous or precancerous. In addition, your gastroenterologist will also check your colon for any other conditions or abnormalities.

When Should You Get a Colonoscopy?

If there are no factors that increase your risk and you have no symptoms, you will usually be advised to have your first screening colonoscopy at 50. Due to a higher risk for the disease, African Americans are advised to have a colonoscopy earlier, at age 45. If you have a personal or family history of the disease or polyps, consult a gastroenterologist, who will advise you when to have your first colonoscopy.

Remember: Stay alert for symptoms and get screened as soon as you’re advised to do so. Colonoscopies can save lives.