Congratulations if you are turning 50 this year.

Statistically you likely reached this milestone with little thought about health care issues - especially those dubbed "maintenance" or "preventative."

Living well through the next 50 years requires more diligence in areas related to diet as well as personal health. Prevention is, without a doubt, the key. With regard to the digestive tract, that means getting screened for colon cancer. This is not an area of the body people like to talk about - certainly not at work or over coffee. For many it may not even be a topic they are willing to discuss with their spouse or other family members.

But look at these important facts:

1. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths for men and women combined.

2. Colon cancer may be present with minimal to no symptoms.

3. It is fundamentally the most preventable of all major cancers. The reason lies in the unique way this cancer forms.

Most solid tumors in the body begin from a single mutant cell that grows as a malignant process - this means being able to grow into surrounding tissues, then into the bloodstream and out to other organs. Colon cancer begins and develops much differently.

An initial abnormal colon cell develops and forms into a small tuft of tissue called a polyp, which looks something like a skin tag or mole. While in this polyp stage it is completely benign and causes no ill effects on a person's health or longevity. In fact, the majority of polyps cause no symptoms at all, until they become a bit larger and may result in bleeding from the rectum or even weakness from being anemic.

After roughly five years of growth, however, a polyp may become so large as to then transform into a malignant cancer. After many more months it is then able to spread to the lymph nodes, liver and lungs. Treatment options become more challenging at this stage of things.

Here's the scary part: One may have no symptoms even up to this advanced stage of cancer. The good news is that colorectal cancer is not just treatable; it is nearly 100 percent preventable. An outpatient procedure called colonoscopy allows for full examination of the colon with simultaneous removal of a polyp or polyps before evolution to cancer ever starts. The procedure involves the use of a flexible tube that has a built-in camera and light source which is navigated over the entire colon. IV (intravenous) sedation removes any anxiety or discomfort from the equation. The test is complete enough that based on slow process from polyp to cancer, a person at average risk with no initial findings may not need an additional examination for five or more years. The most unpleasant part by far is the day before the procedure, when one must remain on a liquid-based diet and take a laxative to help prepare the colon for examination. It is a small endeavor when the end result may be life-saving.

If a cancerous growth is discovered, biopsies are taken and the individual is scheduled for surgery. At surgery the removal of an early-stage cancer also results in a bona fide cure for the patient. More advanced-stage colon cancers will require additional chemotherapy treatments to help fight the disease.

Recent data from the American Cancer Society has now shown that over the past few years, colon cancer rates have started dropping - all because of an increase in people getting proper screening tests. Personal health is intimately tied to one's quality of health, so for someone turning 50 this year, it is time to pay attention. Colorectal cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable.

Ernie Williams, M.D., is a board-certified gastroenterologist and president of Digestive Health Specialists.

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