When Eric Adams, a senior editor here at Men’s Health, tells stories about his mother, we all listen. She had, hands down, the coolest job of any Mom I know: She was a U.S. spy.
Bonnie Adams worked for a secret government agency whose nickname—"No Such Agency"—riffed off its true acronym. She started there in the 1980s as an analyst monitoring communications within the Soviet Union, and was eventually promoted to internal affairs, where she became a field agent sniffing out "security risks." She possessed a gun, a badge, and a lot of stories she could never tell her son, no matter how much he begged.
She was tough, but not quite tough enough. The whole time she was stalking those security risks, an internal threat of her own was sneaking up on her: colon cancer. It took her life in 2004; she was only 55 years old.
Here’s the truly tragic part: Researchers are now learning that her death was entirely preventable. And so is nearly every one of the more than 50,000 deaths caused by colon cancer annually in the United States.
Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, but it takes 30 years or longer to develop, as polyps grow on your colon wall and slowly morph into tumors. It's only during the last few years of that period that it's lethal and capable of spreading. Cancer had lingered in Bonnie Adams’ system undetected and unanticipated for decades.
"Everyone who dies does so because the tumor wasn't detected in the first 25 years of its existence," explains Bert Vogelstein, M.D., a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins University and one of the leading authorities in the genetic foundations of colorectal cancer. "There's a huge window of opportunity to beat this disease."
In other words, had Bonnie Adams scheduled a colonoscopy at any point during that time, she might be alive to enjoy her four grandchildren today.
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Because family history increases a person’s risk of developing the cancer, Eric Adams had his first colonoscopy two years after his mother passed away. So far, he’s had 14 polyps snipped from his colon wall. Those polyps could have—and with his family history, probably would have—turned into a deadly cancer. Because of Eric’s vigilance, he’s beating his death sentence.
But even if you have no family history, you can’t let your guard down. "More than 75 percent of the 100,000 new diagnoses each year have no family history at all," says Dr. Vogelstein.
If thousands of fatalities could be avoided through early detection, why aren't more cases caught? Because people are still squeamish about the exam. Fewer than half of those at the highest risk (due to family history or factors like age, obesity, or inactivity) opt for screening, a 2011 University of Utah study found. Experts say that at this point the disease is more a public-health concern than a medical one.
Even though your colon-cancer risk rises as you grow older (most men aren't advised to have colonoscopies until age 50), you'll benefit most from preventive strategies that you deploy as a young man. "I can't impress enough how much risk reduction can occur by taking control of your life," says Ray DuBois Jr., M.D., Ph.D., a professor of cancer biology and cancer medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
And it’s really not that difficult. Here are three simple ways to reduce your risk of colon cancer every day.
1. Step away from your desk. In a 2011 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, people who spent a decade or more doing sedentary work were almost twice as likely to develop distal colon cancer, which affects the lower colon, than those with physically active jobs. This was true even when the researchers factored out recreational physical activities that participants enjoyed.
That's not all. A new meta-analysis from Washington University in St. Louis says that inactivity may encourage tumor growth, possibly due to inflammation. "Activity prevents polyp formation," says lead researcher Kathleen Wolin, Sc.D. "And the evidence is stronger for large and/or advanced polyps, which are more likely to become cancerous."
The easiest solution is to make sure you're frequently up and about—use a standing desk or take brisk, regular walks around the office. This can help return blood-sugar levels and inflammatory biomarkers to healthier levels.
2. Pop an aspirin a day. A recent study in The Lancet noted that people who took a daily aspirin for at least five years had a 38 percent lower risk of developing colorectal cancer. The painkillers reduce cancer-friendly inflammation throughout your body by inhibiting COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes, which are involved in the production of hormonelike substances called prostaglandins.
Bonus: Others studies have found that a daily baby aspirin can reduce your risk of heart disease.
Just consult your doctor before popping any pills. There are potential downsides to regular aspirin use, such as ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding.
3. Drink more milk. Vitamin D and calcium offer a two-pronged attack against colon polyps. "Strong though not definitive evidence suggests that adequate amounts of vitamin D can reduce your risk," says researcher Walter Willett, M.D., M.P.H., of the Harvard school of public health. "Most Americans do not get adequate vitamin D." Shoot for the recommended 600 IU a day. An 8-ounce cup of milk has more than 100 IU.
Calcium may also reduce the occurrence of precancerous polyps, according to a new study review from the University of California at San Diego. Aim for the recommended daily allowance of 1,000 milligrams from milk or other dairy sources. That glass of milk contains about 300 milligrams.
Milk! It does a colon good. Bottoms up, men!
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