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Julie Wilkinson, BSN, RN

Colon Cancer Blog


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Bowel Irregularity Blues

Wednesday April 23, 2014

Roll of toilet paper.<br />

Image Vincent Giordano/Dreamstime Stock Photos

I have a relative who thinks that his bowels should move daily like clockwork. If he has not had a bowel movement in two days, he'll raid the pharmacy for laxatives, softeners, and anything else to help keep his bowels "on track" and avoid constipation. Fact is, most of us are probably not that regular (or obsessive).

The term "regular" -- at least when it comes to your bowel habits -- is very subjective. I imagine if you lined up five people each would have his or her own definition of what having regular bowel movements means. Likewise, when your doctor asks about your bowel health, he or she is assuming that you know what your regular bowel movement frequency is and can tell when your body has deviated from it's norm.

The following articles are all bowel-related and may help to answer some of those more embarrassing questions that people do not like to ask their doctor:

If you have any symptoms, including chronic irregularity, it's definitely worth a trip to your family doctor. If nothing else, he or she can help ease your mind.

Just Diagnosed and Dealing with It

Sunday March 30, 2014

Doctor writing on a chart.

Image Nonmim/Dreamstime Stock Photos

Getting diagnosed with any kind of cancer can elicit strong reactions in the most meek of us. You might think of what you would say during that moment, but the fact is, none of us know how we will react until it becomes necessary.

In light of the end of Colon Cancer Awareness month, I want to reiterate one point: I know I frequently discuss the importance of screening and colon cancer prevention. This is not meant to take away from the many survivors out there who were doing absolutely everything right and still were diagnosed with colon cancer. There is no blame to you, I am just doing my best to encourage people who are frightened or unaware of screening tests to empower themselves.

Moving from the "newly diagnosed" group to the "I'm a survivor" group is rife with frustration, challenges, and even self doubt. I've highlighted some articles below to help you make that transition if you are newly diagnosed with colon cancer.

  • Newly Diagnosed and Dealing with It. This article encapsulates all of the firsts you face during your new journey with colon cancer.
  • Top Five Things Not to Do After a Cancer Diagnosis. I know -- it's self-explanatory. However, these are the most common mistakes we make.
  • Telling Your Family. For someone who's never faced a cancer diagnosis, this is not easy. Looking your loved ones in the eye and telling them you are prepared to fight a potentially life threatening disease is not for the weak of will.
  • Should I Choose a Cancer Treatment Center? Choosing the what, when, how, and where of your colon cancer treatment is a highly personal choice. Let this article inform you about the benefits of treatment centers and see if this choice is right for you.

Every one of you has their own story to tell. Getting diagnosed and dealing with colon cancer irrevocably changes your life. I've witnessed patients, such as my grandfather, take the diagnosis in stride and even take pleasure in showing off their new "thing-a-ma-jiggy" (the colostomy). On the other hand, I've seen patients newly diagnosed giving up before the treatments even started. Take this moment to pat yourself on the back. If you are here and you are reading this, then you're already taking steps towards being a survivor.

Drop Your Risk of Colon Cancer

Sunday March 30, 2014

Picture of doctors in a hallway.

Image Nyul13505016/Dreamstime Stock Photos

As the National Colon Cancer Awareness month comes to an end, our conscientiousness about the topic does not need to waver. As the second leading type of cancer, the goal should continue to focus on decreasing people's risk of developing this disease and increasing awareness of the same. If that statement sounds extraordinarily simple it's because it is simple -- although you will not get a guarantee to be cancer-free, you will decrease your risk.

Following your doctor's advice regarding your first and ongoing screening exams to detect colorectal cancer is the foremost way to decrease your risk. The concept is simple: skip your screening exams and your risk increases. Adults without a family history or personal risk factors may start their screening exams around 50 years (45 years if you are African American), but if you have a history or risk factors you will need to get screened sooner.

Hopefully, the majority of Mr. Winter is behind us here in the Northern Hemisphere, which means we will soon be enjoying our outdoor foods and grills in pleasant weather. I'm not saying you need to stop grilling your meats, but you could research the correlation between colon cancer and charbroiled foods. When you cook meats at very high temperatures (such as over the open flame of your grill) chemical compounds are released. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are carcinogens (things known to cause cancer) that get in your body by eating chargrilled meats.

While you're considering getting outside, think about the benefits of exercise for your colon. In fact, the less you move and the more you eat, your weight will increase, which boosts your risk for several different types of cancer! If you haven't exercised in a while or have a medical history, talk to your doctor about starting an exercise program before you get started.

There is one thing that can help you lose unhealthy weight and benefit your colon at the same time: A well balanced diet. Increasing the amount of healthful nutrients on your plate at each meal. You don't need to become vegan to really drop your risk, just bump up your consumption of fiber and plant foods and skip the processed ones.

I won't belabor you on the rest of the myriad unhealthy habits (smoking, drinking) that also increase the risk of colon cancer. Talk to your doctor if you're having trouble stopping an unhealthy habit. There are so many wonderful resources available.

Free Colorectal Cancer Resources

Tuesday March 25, 2014

Holding hands.

Image Dmitriy Shironosov/Dreamstime Stock Images

That's right, I said free as in no charge, gratis, on the house, and complimentary colorectal cancer resources. There are so many mediums for colorectal cancer advocacy, support and education that it would be a shame to not highlight some of them for you.

Whether you are fighting colon cancer or just want to help support the fight, these resources can get you get started. This is not an exhaustive list. Please feel free to email me if I have missed any of your favorite resources - we can continue to build upon this together.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) has been supporting the fight against cancer since 1913. Here you will find local support, education, trials and can learn more about colon cancer and treatment options. You can reach their toll-free 24-hour hotline at 1-800-227-2345.

The Colorectal Cancer Coalition campaign, Fight Colorectal Cancer, is a colorectal cancer advocacy organization operating out of Washington, D.C. They offer a free "Newly Diagnosed" kit, a quarterly newsletter, patient webinars, and patient advocacy and education through their website. You can reach their toll-free Answer Line at 1-877-427-2111.

The Colon Cancer Alliance (CCA) is a colon cancer advocacy organization that provides tele-chats, webinars and the buddy program to help fight colon cancer and raise awareness. The CCA uses original fundraisers, such as the Undy 5000, to raise money used to support screening for colon cancer and fund further advocacy. You can reach their toll-free helpline at 1-877-422-2030.

The National Cancer Institute is a government organization that provides education and answers about colon cancer to include current clinical trials and research, prevention and screening facts. You can browse their website to learn more, chat online through their LiveHelp Online Chat option, or call them at 1-800-4-CANCER.

If you are computer savvy and would like to get connected with other people facing similar health challenges, you can sign up free at Caring Bridge, a non-profit organization that provides free websites for connecting with friends and family.

The Association of Cancer Online Resources (ACOR) provides a comprehensive list of online communities fighting cancer together. You can access their free mailing lists with a couple clicks.

Last but not least, you are very welcome to find the resources and support you deserve here. My 365 day a year focus is on helping to promote awareness about colon cancer -- not only during the month of March. I can be found in person on Twitter, Facebook and the Colon Cancer forum here at About.com.

African Americans Need Earlier Colon Cancer Screening

Thursday March 20, 2014

Close image of a hand

Image Dennis Owusu-ansah/Dreamstime Stock Photos

It's largely advertised that the typical age to begin colon cancer screening is on your fiftieth birthday. Although it may not be as fun a milestone as turning 16 and driving or turning 21 and drinking, it is an important year. However, if you are an African American you are encouraged to start screening tests by your forty-fifth year.

According to the American Cancer Society, African Americans have both the highest mortality rate (death due to colon cancer) and rate of being diagnosed with colon cancer. Although research has not determined the rationale behind this fact, the statistics don't lie.

Your ethnicity is one of those risk factors that you cannot change. Other static risk factors for colon cancer include:

  • Age
  • Gender (men have an increased risk over women)
  • Underlying health conditions (such as diabetes)
  • Family history and genetic disorders

So what can be done? First, lets start spreading awareness that African Americans need screening exams, such as the colonoscopy, to begin on their forty-fifth birthday. If colon cancer is found and stopped in its early stages, perhaps we can decrease these horrid statistics. Next, consider taking an active part in decreasing your risk for colon cancer, especially if you have any of the static risk factors previously mentioned. Although you cannot change your skin color and more than your age, you can change your:

  • Diet to include more fruits and vegetables
  • Exercise regiment
  • Unhealthy habits (smoking, drinking to excess)

If you have identified any risks in yourself (or have a family history of cancer) talk to your doctor and learn when you should start screening exams.

March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month

Friday February 28, 2014

Doctor holding a megaphone.<br />

Image Christy Thompson/Dreamstime Stock Photos.

Alright all you survivors, family members, loved ones and care providers -- tomorrow kicks off National Colon Cancer Awareness month. Dig into that closet and find your blue! The dark blue ribbon of awareness serves as a reminder to all that we are working together to stop colon cancer. I'm not a scientist and I don't have the license or skill to perform colonoscopies. My part in this war on cancer is simple: I educate, advocate, and inform. The more people I reach, the more people learn that awareness and screening are the frontline tools against colorectal cancer.

Two years ago I signed a petition, which I posted here on About.com, to paint the White House blue for March. Although enough signatures were not obtained to actually put the idea into effect, it was still fun. Last year I painted my legs blue. I'm not sure what I'll do this year, but I'm open to options if any readers have suggestions (preferably of the non-permanent kind as I did have a friend suggest dying my hair blue).

Since tomorrow is March 1st, I'd like to kick off the month by providing you with some of my favorite go-to websites. With the wealth of information available at your fingertips on the World Wide Web, it's always a good idea to weed out the sites that mostly offer opinion or are trying to sell you something and get straight to the sites that provide fact.

The American Cancer Society is always an excellent starting point for information. When I want to research information on clinical trials or the newest colorectal cancer findings, I usually hop onto the National Cancer Institute website. If I'm looking for statistics, I'll start with the National Cancer Institute but have also found the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site helpful. If I write a specific article on surgery or treatments, the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons has a plethora of information to share.

Vaccines to Treat Cancer?

Friday February 28, 2014


Image Sasho Alusevski/Dreamstime Stock Photos.

Wouldn't it be amazing if we had a vaccine to help treat colon cancer? Actually, the National Cancer Institute has a trial in phase one that is studying just that concept. The vaccine in this study is not intended to prevent you from getting cancer or a recurrence, rather it helps your body fight the cancer using the amazing powers of your own immune system. Although the trial is still in very early phases, it's exciting research. The proposed name of this vaccine is AdHER2/Neu dendritic cell vaccine. Neu or dendritic cells are immune system cells -- the vaccine would be personally tailored to each person's immune system, not a mass produced shot.

This type of cancer treatment falls under the category of immunotherapy. The therapies function by using a part of your own immune system to help your body better fight the cancer on its own. We are already using different forms of immunotherapy to treat cancer, but the science is still fairly new and there is a lot to explore.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are many studies in progress not only at the National Cancer Institute but in large hospitals worldwide. The researchers are trying to find new and better ways to treat colon cancer through use of different chemotherapy drug combinations, combining therapies (chemotherapy and radiation therapy together, for instance), and even working to develop new targeted therapies to kill cancer cells.

Yoga for Your Colon

Thursday February 27, 2014

Woman in yoga pose

Image Pavalache Stelian/Dreamstime Stock Photos

Yes, there is a specific yoga pose designated to help your colon. Many of the core twisting, compression asanas claim this, but there is a specific pose designated specifically for the large intestine. If you practice Bikram yoga you may be familiar with the wind removing pose, or Pavanmaktasana. This asana is used to release tension in your ascending, transverse, and descending colon.

If you've ever spent time in a yoga class -- especially for beginners -- this position holds true to its name. The compression on the abdominal organs tends to force any retained gas outward (hence the name, wind removing). It is a polite way of saying "this asana is going to make you fart".

If you are familiar with yoga poses at all, the wind removing pose is basically the positional opposite of the child's pose. Both poses start on the floor, in the position of many clearing yoga poses. However, in the wind removing pose, you are lying supine. Let me clarify one point -- I am not a yoga practitioner. I have practiced the wind removing pose and it was true to its name. That's all I will say about that.

In my non-yoga master terminology, basically you raise one knee towards your chest and hold. Raise the alternate knee towards your chest and hold. Then raise both knees and hold. Many yoga beginners mistake this pose for a hip or gluteal stretch -- it is not. It is an abdominal compression meant to clear the "wind" from your abdominal organs. Hence, you should have excellent gas relief with this pose.

On a side note, when my oldest son was a baby he had horrendous colic. As most parents know, colic is a byproduct of excess gas and upset in the digestive system. My pediatricians advice was to take my sons tiny legs and "bicycle them" towards his chest slowly -- basically I was doing the wind removing pose to my son without yoga knowledge at the time. The result? A sound night sleep for mom, dad and baby.

What's Good, What's Bad?

Wednesday February 19, 2014

Cup of coffee captured in sepia tones.

Image Robert Brown/Dreamstime.com

Are you still trying to figure out what is and what is not good for your colon's health? If your answer is yes, we are not so different. Even as a registered nurse with over 17 years of experience, I still get confused following the latest trends and inconclusive studies. Eat this to decrease your cancer risk -- oops, nevermind, that might actually be bad for you. I thought it would be entertaining to review some past popular trends.

The Great Coffee Debate

The magic properties of the coffee bean have come to light in recent studies. Coffee is bad for your colon. Coffee is good for your colon. We've bounced back and forth over the years but remain at a standstill. Some small studies suggested that people who drink more coffee have a decreased risk of colon cancer, yet these same studies showed that another percentage -- albeit small -- of people in the same study actually increased their colon cancer risk by drinking more caffeinated beverages.

Increased Fiber Decreases Your Cancer Risk

Yet again, this one is under debate. Although a high fiber diet is connected with undeniable health benefits, it has not unanimously been agreed that a heavy consumption of fiber directly impacts your colon cancer risk. Regardless of what tests do or do not show, eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables with fiber is good for you, even if we cannot directly correlate it with a decreased colon cancer risk.

Eating Too Much Sugar

Now we all know that eating too many products full of refined sugar can cause health problems, but can it actually cause colon cancer? The answers found in studies over the years are not completely conclusive. One general trend that I did find -- eating too much sugar can lead to obesity, which is associated with a higher risk of colon cancer.

I'm not discouraging anyone from following the studies and educating themselves. I am only suggesting that we all mix in a dab of common sense when reading them. If something sounds too fantastic to be true...it probably is. As a two-cup-of-coffee-per-day sort of gal, I was pretty happy about the initial studies showing that the coffee bean may have preventive properties. However, I didn't immediately start drinking four cups per day. As of yet, I have not seen anything better than the time-tested regiment of a good diet, routine screening exams and exercise to help decrease your risk of colon cancer.

Don't Be Afraid of Doctor's Appointments

Friday January 31, 2014

Group of doctors in white coats.

Image Nyul13505016/Dreamstime Stock Photos

I might be nominated as the worst patient ever. Once I step into that doctor's office my blood pressure skyrockets irrationally -- because there is nothing to fear. Perhaps it is fear of the unknown. They used to call this "white coat syndrome", but I haven't seen a doctor wearing an actual white coat for years.

Don't let a fear of the medical staff stop you from making your next appointment. It is easy to forgo the simple screening appointments thinking, "I'm not sick and I have no complaints", but it is not advisable. Even though you may feel fine, tests can sometimes catch colon cancer in its earliest stages (when it is most treatable). Don't make the mistake of forgoing routine screening exams simply because you feel well. If you are due for an appointment go ahead and make it.

If you get anxious about doing to the doctor's office here are a few ways to help you calm yourself:

  • Write your appointment down on the calendar and forget about it.
  • Make a list of questions for the doctor, then set them aside.
  • Schedule your appointment early in the morning if possible.
  • Take a few deep, calming breaths before you enter the exam room.

Once you schedule the appointment it's time to stop worrying about it. There is nothing you can do to change the outcome of your doctor's visit simply by stressing over it. Likewise, it can be very cathartic to write a list of questions down and then stop worrying about them. As long as they are written down you will have a chance to discuss each with your doctor. I recommend early morning appointments as that way you have less time of the day to stress about it -- or worse, find a reason to cancel it.

There is a reason why wellness appointments are named so -- to keep you well!

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