The results of yet another study are casting doubt on the value of taking antioxidant vitamins to ward off cancer. Back in April, researchers in Finland reported that male smokers who took supplements of beta-carotene and vitamin E were not any less likely to develop lung cancer than smokers who did not take the pills.

Now, in a four-year experiment, scientists in this country have found that hundreds of people who swallowed high doses of beta-carotene, vitamin E, and a third antioxidant, vitamin C, did not end up with fewer precancerous growths in their colons and rectums than non-supplement takers. All had already been treated for at least one of these growths before entering the study. Called colorectal adenomas, they can turn into colon or rectal cancer, the biggest cancer killers of Americans after lung cancer.

One of the reasons the researchers looked into the possibility that antioxidant vitamins could help stave off cancers of the colon and rectum is that populations which consume a lot of foods containing those nutrients--meaning populations whose diets are rich in fruits and vegetables--typically have low rates of those diseases. Of course, more studies will have to be conducted before the final word on the matter can be given, but the scientists are suggesting that perhaps compounds in fruits and vegetables other than antioxidants are exerting the protective effect, or that people who eat relatively large amounts of plant foods are thereby avoiding excesses of undesirable substances in meats and fats.

A word on colon cancer detection...
An estimated 107,000 Americans will be diagnosed this year with cancer of the colon, that part of the large intestine extending to the rectum. Almost 50,000 people will die of it, while another 7,000 will die of rectal cancer. The best way to deal with colon and rectal cancer is to prevent them, of course, but early detection can greatly improve the prognosis. In fact, with early detection, "mortality can be reduced 30 to 50 percent," says the head of the study, E. Robert Greenberg, MD.

The American Cancer Society recommends an annual digital rectal examination by a physician after age 40. Yearly tests for determining whether there is blood in the stool are recommended after age 50. And sigmoidoscopies, in which a physician uses special instruments to inspect the rectum and lower colon, are recommended every three to five years after age 50.

Warning signs that should also precipitate a visit to the doctor include rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, or changes in bowel habits. These symptoms can also indicate several other conditions that are less serious than cancer, but it's better to play it safe than sorry.

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