Q: My dad has just been diagnosed with colon cancer.  Am I more likely to get this type of cancer, and how can I prevent it?

 Colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer, after prostate and lung cancers.  It's directly responsible for more than 60,000 deaths every year in the U.S.  More than 150,000 new cases are identified annually in this country. 

There are three risk factors that increase the possibility of developing colon cancer.  First, as with virtually all types of cancer, is family history.  If a close relative has had colon cancer, be sure to notify your doctor.  Generally, more frequent screening will be recommended for those in high-risk groups.  Patients with ulcerative colitis are also more vulnerable to developing this type of cancer, and some types of colon polyps are at risk of becoming cancerous.  The physician treating such cases will be monitoring them closely for signs of cancer development.

A change in bowel habits, bloating, abdominal pain or unintended weight loss should be reported to your doctor.  Low blood pressure, anemia or blood in the stool are also warning signs.  Don't assume that rectal bleeding is just hemorrhoids.

Patients in their 40s, or who have other risk factors, should follow their doctors' suggestions for testing.  By 50, even those who are not in a high-risk group should have a baseline colonoscopy performed.

Like most cancerous growths, colon cancer responds best when diagnosed in its early stages, giving physicians as much time as possible to treat the case.

The most effective treatments involve surgery, including partial or complete removal of the colon.  Less invasive, laproscopic procedures may be recommended, depending on the extent of the cancer.  These speed up the recovery process and are more comfortable for the patient. 

The best prevention is to keep good health habits.  Modify your diet to eat more fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  Limit your consumption of red meats.  Don't smoke or drink heavily, and try to exercise three to four hours a week to maintain a healthy weight and keep your body mass index less than 25.

Sheela Tejwani, M.D., FACP, is an oncologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.  Her clinical interests include breast, colorectal and genitourinary cancers.