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Preventing Colon Cancer: What You Can Do

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While experts continue to debate the role diet plays in preventing colorectal cancer, researchers are exploring a new field called chemoprevention -- the use of drugs or nutritional supplements to prevent disease, for example, the formation of polyps that can lead to colon cancer.

Aspirin is at the heart of the chemoprevention research for colon cancer, says Raymond N. DuBois, MD, PhD, director of gastroenterology and the Cancer Prevention Program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

"Everybody thinks of it as a simple drug for aches and pains and hasn't considered it as preventive for cancer," DuBois tells WebMD. But, he says, "since 1988, a series of articles -- from 30 to 35, published by number of groups -- has shown that groups of people taking aspirin or ibuprofen, Motrin, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs ... reduce risk of colorectal cancer by 50%."

The concern, DuBois says, is that these drugs, known as NSAIDs, can harm the stomach. That's where another type of drug, called COX-2 inhibitors, comes in. These drugs are more selective and cause no significant damage to the gastrointestinal, or GI, tract.

"Obviously they're new, so we'll have see how the safety profile develops, but so far it's looked like they have a significant reduction in GI toxicity," DuBois says. "As long as they're effective, people can take them for a long time."

COX-2 inhibitors may block the formation of blood vessels in tumors, and that could lead to a treatment option for some people, DuBois says. "That's just come out over the last few weeks and we need to do more work on it," he says. This treatment could also prevent polyps from growing into cancerous tumors.

There has been only one study of COX-2 inhibitors in people, done in patients with a rare genetic disease called Familial Adenomas Poliposis, which predisposes them to polyp formation. "It showed a 30% reduction in polyps, which was pretty significant," DuBois says. "The FDA did approve use of that drug for those patients."

Another three-year study is under way to see whether the drug will be effective in reversing polyp formation.

In the meantime, DuBois recommends baby aspirin for its protective effects for heart disease as well as colon cancer, especially for people over 50. "Toxic effects are less with the lower dose, but you still get some. If [patients] have risk for cardiovascular disease, one of the recommendations is to take aspirin, and they can take it knowing it might help other things as well."

If you want to learn more about colorectal cancer screening, Michael Pignone, MD, MPH, a researcher of the Lineberger Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggests checking out this
link -- www.med.unc.edu/medicine/edursrc/colon.htm. It leads to a downloadable video that explains -- in layman's terms -- various colon cancer screening tests, Pignone says.

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