(Cottage Health photo)

Colon health is a topic most people don’t want to think about, but if you’re over 50 it’s something you definitely should not ignore.

Those 50 and older have a significantly higher risk of developing cancer in the colon, which makes up most of the large intestine and measures roughly 3 to 6 feet long. Cancer of the colon and rectum (colorectal cancer) is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths for women, and ranks second as the leading cause of death in men.

Certain lifestyle factors increase the chances of colorectal cancer — with diet, weight and exercise playing the biggest roles, according to the American Cancer Society.

Being overweight raises the risk, and so does eating a diet with plenty of red meat and processed and cured meats (hot dogs, deli meats). Lack of exercise and physical activity can lead to a greater chance of cancer, while being more active can help lower the odds.

High consumption of alcohol (that includes wine) has also been linked to colorectal cancer. The American Cancer Society advises that men consume no more than two alcoholic drinks a day and women should limit alcohol to one drink or glass a day.

“To find out if you are at risk for colorectal cancer, I urge everyone over 50 to schedule a colonoscopy,” explained Denise Holmes, RN, clinical manager of surgical services at Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital, explained.

”If you have a family history of colon cancer, polyps or other risk factors, you may need a screening at an earlier age. Colon cancer is one of the few cancers that can be prevented and cured if caught early.”

A colonoscopy takes only about 30 minutes, and patients are given sedation to keep them relaxed and comfortable. Some may also get deeper anesthesia if needed.

Preparing for the procedure is often considered the hardest part. A good prep requires eating low-fiber foods — that means no raw fruits and vegetables — for several days prior to your appointment. The day before the screening, only clear liquids can be consumed, and a bowel prep is also taken to completely clean out the colon.

Your primary care physician can help you schedule a colonoscopy, and will likely refer you to a gastroenterologist who will perform the procedure. Click here to find a doctor.