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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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A few days, weeks, or even months after your bowel surgery, sex might be the farthest thing from your mind. In the initial recovery phase, your physical body is healing and needs time to strengthen. Your mental recovery, however, might take a little longer. If you cringe every time you see your ostomy appliance in the mirror, perhaps it is time to reframe your self image.
Start by doing something nice for yourself. You are still a lovable, sexual creature. Your bowel surgery and subsequent colostomy won't change that fact. If you haven't already, start by buying yourself some new clothes or getting a new hairdo. I've always enjoyed the phrase: Fake it 'till you feel it. Even if you don't feel attractive on the inside (yet), you can pamper your outside.
Wait for the green light from your doctor, but if he or she hasn't mentioned when you can resume sexual activity don't be afraid to ask! Once your doctor gives you the okay to have sex, talk to your partner. Let him or her know what you are feeling. Your partner might be intentionally distant for fear of hurting or rushing you, but you can close that gap with communication. Don't be afraid to let your partner know if you would like to take it slow at first, as this is new to both of you. Some women report vaginal dryness and men might initially have erectile problems following surgery. After weeks of abstinence you might try resuming your sex life slowly by:
- Holding your partner's hand, giving or receiving back rubs, and sharing kisses. Don't overlook the importance of simple touch.
- Enjoy a hot and steamy "make out" session with your partner. You don't need penetration to enjoy intimacy.
You do not have to get naked if your ostomy appearance upsets you. It can be covered with silk boxer shorts or a little nightie. Some companies even manufacture and sell special tiny pouches or ostomy covers just for this purpose. If you are going to wear your regular appliance, make sure that it is clean and well-secured before hand. Most importantly, don't over think it. You might have lost some bowel and gained an ostomy, but you kept your life -- now go live it!
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Undergoing cancer treatment you are probably no stranger to fatigue -- the alarm clock becomes your enemy and you are completely worn out. Similar to "chemo brain", treatment and cancer fatigue is a real phenomena. This type of fatigue surpasses feeling simply tired or overwhelmed. Chances are, it won't go away with a good nights rest. It can be so exhausting that simple activities -- brushing your teeth or getting dressed -- can seem insurmountable.
Not everyone undergoing chemotherapy suffers this fatigue. If you are tiring out easier than before treatment, this may just be your body's normal response to the chemotherapy drugs and the cancer. Remember, during treatment your body is fighting a war against cancer and the side effects of chemotherapy. Although it may feel like you will never be yourself again, there are many ways to get through this exhaustion.
Accept help from friends and family. It sounds like a no-brainer, but many people are hesitant to accept offers of food, transport or light housekeeping from their dear ones. The sooner you accept help, the sooner you'll wonder why it took you so long to do so.
Learn how to let go. The dust motes floating in the corner will have to wait. I'm not saying you should let your house go to shambles, but if you were a vacuum-twice-daily sort of person, it might be better to save that energy and expend it towards healing and resting. You know what your essentials of living are -- stick to the things you have to do to survive until you feel like you again.
Take care of yourself. Unless you are younger, mom or dad won't be in residence forcing you to eat healthy, balance exercise with rest, and generally "take it easy". If you can manage it, getting yourself moving daily, eating healthy, and getting plenty of rest can help you rebound faster once the chemotherapy session is finished.
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We've all seen or heard jokes about people setting up camp in the bathroom. My grandfather even had a magazine rack next to his toilet (not kidding). Ideally, you should not spend so much time on the porcelain throne that you can complete a chapter of your favorite book or watch a clip on your iPad. On a serious note, if you are spending more than just a few minutes straining on the toilet, you may be causing more harm than good.
Although it may seem harmless enough, prolonged sitting on the toilet can set the stage for several things to happen. If you've already had children or are of a certain age, prolonged time on the potty can lead to rectal prolapse, hemorrhoids, and even varicose veins. The occasional bout or two of constipation is not something to stress over, but if you consistently need more than a few minutes to move your bowels you might need intervention.
Regardless of what you eat (or don't eat) you should be moving your bowels at least every few days. If you find that you are consistently straining on the toilet the answer might be found in reviewing your diet. Constipation is common in a diet devoid of fresh foods and laden with processed, sodium-rich or canned foods. Vegetables, fruits and grains help keep everything moving through your colon. Likewise, hydration is essential to keep things going. If you don't drink enough water -- or if you live in a warm, dry climate -- you may not be drinking enough.
Sometimes dietary changes alone are not enough to your bowels moving more efficiently. For instance, if you are currently on prescription medications such as narcotics for pain relief, these medications can affect your bowels. If you continue to suffer irregularity or chronic constipation it is time to discuss these concerns with your doctor.
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I love New Year's Day. A time to move forward, make changes, and start fresh! Just a few simple lifestyle changes can help you decrease your risk of colon cancer and improve your health and well-being in 2014. Even if you have already been diagnosed with cancer -- it is never too late to start decreasing your chance of recurrence.
Starting Thursday morning I already know that my gym will be packed. The New Year's resolutions drive people to health; sadly this cause and energy usually doesn't last past February. Don't make health a resolution -- make it a lifestyle.
If you are 50 or above, have a family history of cancer, or need to begin colon cancer screening now for any reason, start this year off right and make that appointment now. Screening tests like the colonoscopy are devised to catch problems before they start.
Don't just think about it...join that gym! Consider starting a formalized exercise program if your health and doctor permit. By formalized, I don't mean leotards and pricey sneakers, rather scheduling time daily to exercise. Physical activity helps reduce your risk of developing colon cancer -- it also helps reduce recurrence.
Stop smoking or using tobacco now, not tomorrow. Tobacco use in any form will increase your personal risk of colon cancer -- any many other types of cancer as well.
Ring in the New Year wisely and in moderation. If you're out at a party tonight stick to the recommended one drink per day for women and two drinks a day for men - or abstain altogether. You can always play it cool by getting a nonalcoholic soda or juice with a wedge of lime. No one has to know and chances are you'll have more fun watching your dear ones act out when they overdo it.
Eating a healthy diet does not take a degree in nutrition and you don't have to start the New Year as a vegetarian to reap the benefits of a diet full of fruits and vegetables. Slowly introduce one more fruit or vegetable to your plate each day. While you're bettering yourself, consider decreasing your red and processed meat consumption and switch out the refined grains (white rice or bread) for whole grains (whole wheat and brown rice).
Have a safe and happy holiday. See you in 2014!
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Whether you are concerned about a wart, a cold, or a chance of colon cancer, talking to the doctor makes some people feel rather uncomfortable. Your doctor cannot help you if you don't initiate the conversation and lay all your concerns on the table. Before you go to the office, make sure your purpose is clear and write out a list of concerns. This way, you are less likely to chicken out at the last minute and avoid asking questions that may embarrass you.
In a perfect world your doctor could spend as much time as you need discussing your concerns and answering questions. Although you should never feel rushed, your appointment time is limited and you have to make the most of it. Having said that, if you do consistently feel rushed or unimportant, it may be time to consider firing your doctor and finding another physician.
Specifically, list your concerns about cancer. Perhaps you are worried that you will be unable to work during treatment or you would like more information on the survival statistics for your stage of colon cancer. If you bring your list of questions and concerns to the appointment you can jot down notes as the doctor provides education. This provides two benefits -- you will know that your questions were addressed and you will have notes to refer back to as needed.
A final note on what are perceived as embarrassing complaints or questions: Even though you might turn pink at the thought of openly discussing your bowel frequency or consistency with your doctor, it can help shape your doctor's working diagnosis and get you the right exams. Likewise, if you find mucous or blood in your stool it is vital that you tell your doctor. These can be signs of very benign problems, such as hemorrhoids, or a more serious symptom of colon cancer. Leave your embarrassment at the door and talk frankly with your physician. Trust me, he or she is quite used to it.