There’s no time like the present to think about getting your colon checked. After all, March is Colorectal Awareness Month. You never know what you might find—or help prevent.
Gene Kerr says he never smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol. He ate well, too—mostly a diet of chicken, turkey and fish. There was some stress through the years, sure. That came with the territory as a public school counselor in Dade County. For the most part, though, Gene thought he was healthy.
So, in 2010, when cramps and indigestion suddenly began following meals while dining out, 71-year-old Gene simply quit going to restaurants and made a natural assumption: He blamed his stomach ailments on the food.
“I couldn’t eat out any place. I just thought the foods were high in bacteria or something,” says Gene, who especially missed the BBQ. “I would swallow some Tums, and that seemed to help. I thought I was fine.”
He was wrong.
After the problems persisted, Gene did receive a checkup from his regular doctor, which confirmed his initial belief of no physical issues. Yet, a subsequent referral to 7 Hill Gastroenterology in Ocala proved otherwise. A colonoscopy uncovered polyps, including one that was 2 1/2 inches long and horizontal rather than the normal vertical.
“[The doctors] told me if [the large polyp] hadn’t been removed, it would have been cancer within a couple of years,” Gene says. In addition, a related check of his stomach discovered ulcers, which were actually the cause of his cramps and indigestion.
“This was a surprise to me,” says Gene. “I can chuckle about it now, but I didn’t think I had ulcers. I’m fine now. I can eat any kind of food at any restaurant.”
The scenario is not uncommon according to area gastroenterologists who specialize in the digestive system. In the simple but direct words of one of them, Dr. Henry Olejeme of Gastroenterology Associates of Ocala says “If you have unexplained symptoms, check them out.”
Fact is, when it comes to a colonoscopy, symptoms often are not involved, Olejeme says, pointing out the increasing need for screenings as people age. As in Gene’s case, you could have precancerous polyps and not know it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if everyone 50 years old or older were screened regularly, as much as 60 percent of deaths from this cancer could be avoided. Among cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum) is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year more than 140,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer and more than 50,000 people die from it. Unfortunately, the risk of getting colorectal cancer increases with age, and more than 90 percent of cases occur in people who are 50 years old or older.
“Gut health is a very common concern for most of us, especially as we age,” says Dr. Dabir Siddiqui of 7 Hill Gastroenterology. “Common problems of gas, bloating, indigestion and bowel-habit changes are by themselves not that important and can be easily handled with simple changes in diet. But when red-flag symptoms like vomiting, pain, weight loss or bleeding appear, then it’s very important to seek medical help immediately.”
What exactly is gut health? Although the medical community is just now starting to discover the real importance of gut health, this much we do know: There’s a lot going on in the stomach.
As defined by the America Medical Association, “Your digestive system consists of organs that break down food into components that your body uses for energy and for building and repairing cells and tissues.”
When the intricate system falls out of kilter, problems arise.“The warning signs are diarrhea, weight loss, pain, reflux, bloating, nausea and passing blood in the stool,” says Dr. Olejeme. “I would say my top-three [signs] are persistent abdominal pain, diarrhea and blood in the stool. Abnormal weight loss is an addition.”
A U.S. News and World Report article, 8 Common Digestive Problems and How to End Them, cited that “digestive disorders are placing a ‘growing burden’ on Americans, causing an unprecedented number of clinic visits and hospitalizations.”
That much is known.
The unknown, however, begins with how much a person’s overall health is determined by the health of their gut. Diseases such as diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome can often be traced back to gut health. By now we have all heard of the gut’s flora—good bacteria that calls the area home. It’s when that good bacteria goes bad that health problems begin to arise. A variety of factors contribute to the relationship of good-to-bad bacteria, including illness, antibiotic use and the foods we consume.
In addition, there’s even some belief within the medical community that this haven of tiny living beings can be affected by mood, and vice versa. For example, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that depression and anxiety may result from short-term digestive irritation early in life. The study, published in May 2011 by PLOS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed online publication, concluded that mood might result from gastrointestinal disorders, rather than mood causing the stomach problems.
The point is, the gut remains somewhat of a mystery.
“There is a lot of interest in this area,” Dr. Olejeme contends. “But there’s still research to be done.”
The same investigative thinking applies to sufferers of poor gut health: explore and research through medical testing.
“When red-flag symptoms like vomiting, pain, weight loss or bleeding appear, then it is very important to seek medical help immediately,” says Dr. Siddiqui. “Preventive steps like timely colonoscopies, especially after age 45 or earlier if there is family history of colon cancer/polyps, are very important. Old age is not a disease, but it’s associated with aging of the digestive tract like other parts of the body and needs to be taken care of properly. Proper attention to diet, exercise, stopping smoking, taking care of the stresses of daily living and common-sense living can go a long way in alleviating most age-related concerns of gut health.”
It’s always a good idea to take a look at the food we are putting into our bodies. Dr. Olejeme has one small piece of advice that can make a huge difference in how you feel: “Eat better—a balanced diet.”
So, what does that mean? Specifics vary, depending upon whom you consult, but the basics encompass the use of fractions, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: no greater than one-third of daily calories each coming from carbohydrates, protein and fats. Some of the key foods to incorporate: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, beans, nuts, olive oil, avocados, sweet potatoes and low-fat dairy.
But sometimes, changing your diet just isn’t enough.
Gene, who quit dining out and unknowingly harbored a potential cancer in his gut, says prevention is key. His message from experience: “Go ahead and get a preventative exam, with the hope that you don’t have a problem. But if you do have a problem, the sooner you get the treatment, the better.”