March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and screening for colorectal cancer is a necessary component of a comprehensive approach to prevention. Colorectal cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer, and without appropriate screening it is often encountered late because it is unlikely to show symptoms. Most cases start with non-cancerous growths such as polyps. For one of those polyps to develop into a true cancer, many degrees of dysfunction on the part of our immune systems and the rest of our complex physiologies are needed. The great news is that when given the opportunity to do so the body will exert its innate healing capacity. We are readily equipped to handle the development of cancerous cells prior to them becoming dangerous. Our ability to induce that healing process is evolving, and acknowledging novel ways to discover cancer prior to it becoming clinically relevant is an important piece to the puzzle.
Typically screening options include fecal occult blood testing, flexible sigmoidoscopy, and colonoscopy. Each of these has its own benefits and risks which you should discuss with your physician. In addition, make sure to ask how often screening is appropriate for your unique needs.
While these tests have historically proven to be extremely useful, the combination of new technology and improved understanding of colorectal cancer development has lead to new tests. A 2015 meta-analysis[i]
assessed developing non-invasive biomarker, and it was found that non-invasive biomarkers might provide insight into what the future may hold in terms of screening. That future looks bright! Stool DNA biomarkers, microRNA in serum and stool, epigenetic markers of methylation and histone modification, and stool/serum protein biomarkers are emerging as options which may become used more readily in doctor’s offices. Perhaps the most exciting development is the ability of trained dogs to “sniff out” volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted in breath and stool samples in those with colorectal cancer. In one study[ii]
, the specificity and sensitivity were 0.99 and 0.97 respectively (that’s high in a clinical trial!). Best of all, the dogs were able to detect changes even with early cancer growth, so it seems that man’s best friend may have even more to offer than we thought.
The advent of these new biomarkers affords us an opportunity which may not have been available before: being able to monitor changes in levels as patients undertake necessary and all-important lifestyle changes to modify their cancer risk. Here are some important ways to decrease your risk of developing colorectal cancer (as always, discuss these changes with your naturopathic physician – and ask for recommendations specific to your needs
Increase your intake of soluble and insoluble fiber, aim for 15-20g per day
Increase your intake of fermented food and drinks such as sauerkraut, natto, tempeh, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha
Avoid eating overcooked or burned foods
Maintain regular bowel movements:
Set a regular time every day to train your intestines. First thing in the morning works very well
Exercise! The more you move, the more you’ll move your bowels
Stool hygiene: buy an 8-10” step stool to keep near your toilet, and place your feet on it when you go to the bathroom. This changes the shape and position of your sigmoid colon, allowing for a more natural process. Remember, our ancestors tended to squat when they did their business, so it is best to mimic our evolutionary tendencies
Eat regular meals, and aim to separate carbohydrates and proteins when possible
Maintain regular sleep times. Sleep is reparative, and those who don’t get enough are limiting their immune systems from functioning optimally
Vatandoos N, Ghanbari J, Mojaver M, et al. Early detection of colorectal cancer: from conventional methods to novel biomarkers. J Cancer Res Clin Oncol 2015; [Epub ahead of print].
, Kohnoe S, Yamazato T, et al. Colorectal cancer screening with odour material by canine scent detection. Gut 2011; 60(6):814-9.