March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month and a great reminder that what you put in your body must come out and that foods have tremendous consequences on your health.

Today, more than ever, people of all ages need to be aware of the wide-ranging health effects of what they put in their body, for example processed and high fat foods. A new study by the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports the proportion of colon cancer in adults under age 50 has increased to 11 percent in 2013, up from 6 percent in 1990.

Roper St. Francis Healthcare doctors are seeing more cases of younger patients being diagnosed with colon cancer. Patients in their 30’s and 40’s are not the rare cases anymore. But patients have more control than maybe they realize to not be part of these statistics.

The ACS has released an updated guideline for colorectal cancer screening. Among the major guideline changes, the new recommendations say screening should begin at age 45 for people at average risk. Previously, the guideline recommended screening begin at age 50 for people at average risk. Colon cancer runs in families, so if you have a family history, you may want to come in before the recommended age of 45 for a colonoscopy.

We love our sweet tea, barbecue and deep fried food in the South, but the risks cannot be understated. Red meat, white bread and sugar-laden drinks are believed to increase a person’s long-term risk of colon cancer. They increase inflammation in your body and that is associated with a higher chance of developing colon cancer. If you are overweight or obese, your risk of developing and dying from colorectal cancer is higher. Being overweight raises the risk of colon and rectal cancer in both men and women, but the link seems to be stronger in men.

A diet that’s high in red meats (such as beef, pork, lamb or liver) and processed meats (like hot dogs and some luncheon meats) also raises your colorectal cancer risk. Cooking meats at very high temperatures (frying, broiling or grilling) creates chemicals that might raise your cancer risk, although it’s not clear how much this might increase your risk for colorectal cancer specifically. Heavy alcohol and tobacco use also raise your risks for colon cancer.

It’s also important to pay attention to any differences in your bowl movements. Abdominal pain, changes in bathroom habits, weight loss, blood in your stool, or black and tarry stools are all signs you need to be checked out.

Although I rarely see patients excited for a colonoscopy, many tell me afterward how glad they are they did it, especially when we identify cancer or abnormalities in the earliest stages. Colon cancer is one of the few cancers that can be prevented, and these screenings save lives.

So now comes the part where I get to remind you that a colonoscopy isn’t as bad as it sounds. Skipping solid food for one day and taking a bowel prep may cause anxiety, but it’s improved over time. Colon cancer is one of the few that can be prevented.

Dr. Jorge Lagares-Garcia is a Colorectal Surgical Director at Roper St. Francis Healthcare.