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In The News

Dr. Ahmad Karadaghy, St. Luke's Hospital

Colon cancer screening and prevention are just as important for women

Colon cancer is often thought of as a man's disease. But it isn't.

The disease affects men and women equally and is the third most common type of cancer in women - after lung and breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2009, an estimated 106,100 new cases of colon cancer (54,090 of them in women) and 40,870 new cases of rectal cancer (17,290 in women) were diagnosed.

One of the most important risk factors for colon cancer is age. The risk for colon cancer increases after age 50 for women with no additional risk factors. Other factors that raise a woman's risk include menopause, a history of breast or uterine cancer, a high-fat or low-fiber diet, a sedentary lifestyle and a family history of the disease.

The good news is that if colon cancer is found early, it can be cured most of the time. Also, most colon cancers start with small benign tumors called polyps, and removing these polyps can prevent the development of cancer. This is why screening for colon cancer is so important.

Unfortunately, because many women consider colon cancer a man's disease, they ignore screening recommendations. Screening should begin at age 50 for most women and at age 40 for those with first-degree relatives (parents, brothers, sisters or children) who have had colon cancer. However, if you have a chronic inflammatory condition of the intestine or an inherited condition such as familial adenomatous polyposis in which many polyps develop in the colon, you should start getting your screenings even earlier.

You can also take steps to lower your risk for colon cancer. Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Don't smoke. Exercise regularly. Women should also limit their alcohol intake to no more than one drink each day. In addition, hormone replacement therapy and supplemental calcium have both been found to significantly reduce women's risk for developing colon cancer.

March has been designated as Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which means there's no better time for you to take steps to minimize your risk for colon cancer. And always remember that colon cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable.

Dr. Ahmad Karadaghy is a board-certified gastroenterologist at St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-205-6600 or visit his Meet the Doctor page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on March 25, 2010.