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March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month

In this column, Roberta Cahill of the American Cancer Society talks about colon cancer and the ways to reduce cancer risk. Cahill is Yankton Sioux and lives in Pierre, S.D. Her work focuses on cancer education to diverse populations.

Charlotte Hofer: Why is it so important that people get tested for colon cancer?

Roberta Cahill: Colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer, and will strike 140,000 Americans this year. But with proper screening, colon cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable. If you have colon cancer, and it’s found in its early stages, the five-year survival rate is 90 percent. But unfortunately, because screening rates are so low, only 39 percent of colon cancers are detected at the time when it’s easiest to beat. So it’s very important that it’s caught at an early stage, and that means getting tested regularly.

CH: Why are screening rates so low?

RC: According to the American Cancer Society, the top seven reasons why people don’t get screened for colon cancer are: people don’t think of colon cancer as a personal health threat, they don’t understand the benefits of getting screened, they are too afraid or embarrassed, they don’t have the time, they don’t think they can afford it, they don’t know where to go to get screened, and the number one reason is that people say their doctors never talked to them about it.

If you are over the age of 50, or if you have a strong family history of colon cancer, you need to get screened. No reason is good enough not to get screened.

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CH: How will getting screened benefit me?

RC: Colon cancer almost always starts with a polyp, which is a small growth on the lining of the colon or rectum. By getting tested, your doctor can find and remove polyps before they become dangerous. And it’s important to get screened because colon cancer has no symptoms in its early stages.

CH: Are there things I can do to lower my risk for colon cancer?

RC: Healthy lifestyle habits help to prevent colon cancer. Maintain a healthy weight, exercise and eat a well-balanced diet that’s high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Limit intake of red and processed meat. If you drink alcohol, limit it to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. If you smoke, quit. And of course, if you’re over the age of 50 or have a strong family history, get screened.

CH: How do I go about getting a screening?

RC: Talk to your doctor. Don’t be afraid to ask about colon cancer screening, even if you have to mention it first. Your doctor will be able to help you determine whether or not you need to be screened, and if you do, how to schedule a screening. You can also visit the American Cancer Society online or call (800) ACS-2345 for more information. Bottom line, this is one disease that’s preventable, treatable and beatable.

Editors Note: The American Cancer Society is dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem by saving lives, diminishing suffering and preventing cancer through research, education, advocacy and service. For cancer information anytime, call (800) 227-2345. For information about this article, contact Charlotte Hofer, American Cancer Society at