What you need to know about colon cancer

For some cancers, there are early warning signs.

You may have a change in your blood, a spot on your skin, a lump in your breast.

But Piedmont Healthcare of Atlanta colorectal surgeon Dr. Ibrahim Adamu says colon cancer may not be that obvious, especially early on.

"Colon cancer, for the most part, you don't see any warning signs, because you have a growth inside a tunnel," Dr. Adamu says, referring to the long intestine.

Dr. Adamu says as the cancer grows, it can cause changes in your bowel habits, sometimes bleeding.

"What we see often is people complain they're bloated, they have this feeling of having to go to the bathroom," Dr. Adamu says.  "They go to the bathroom, and after coming out, minutes later, they feel like they haven't really emptied."

Pay attention to those changes, particularly if your 50 or older, Adamu says.

Our risk of developing colon cancer increases with age. People with a close relative who has had colorectal cancer, African Americans and people with inflammatory bowel diseases are also at increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. And there are other red flags.

"If someone is definitely feeling weak, poor appetite, they're losing weight. You do blood work and they have low hemoglobin levels, that should give you a warning sign."

Dr. Adamu says the best way to detect colon cancer, is through a colonoscopy.  

Experts recommend most of us start getting screened at 50, earlier if we have a first-degree relative who's been diagnosed with colon cancer. Dr. Adamu worries many people resist getting screened, out of fear.

"I think most people are worried about what's going to be found," he says. "Most people are worried they're going to find something. We tell everybody most screenings end up being negative.  The vast majority who go for a colon cancer screening, have a negative test."

If you have colon cancer, and it's detected early, Dr. Adamu says you have an excellent chance of beating cancer. 90 percent of people with early-stage colon cancer are still alive 5 years after their diagnosis.

"Having colon cancer doesn't mean you are going to die," Dr. Adamu says. "In fact, most colon cancers are treatable. The vast majority of colon cancers that you find through a screening are curable."

So, what can you do to lower your risk of developing colon cancer? First, Dr. Adamu says, get screened for it. Talk to your doctor about when to start getting screened, and how often you need a colonoscopy.

Next, he says, try to eat more fruits and vegetables, to increase the amount of fiber you're eating.

Cut back on red meat, and alcohol. If you smoke, quit, Adamu says.

Finally, try to get more exercise, and get down to a healthier weight if you're overweight.

All of those things, Dr. Adamu says, can go a long way in helping you stay healthy.