How to take control of your colorectal cancer risk in 6 easy steps
When it comes to colorectal cancer screening and prevention, it’s not something you want to put off. The good news is, there are steps you can take today to take control of your risk factors.
Here’s what to know about colorectal cancer prevention, risk factors and detection. There’s no better time to protect your gut than now.
Modifiable lifestyle risk factors for colon cancer
Certain behaviors can put your body at a greater risk of developing colorectal cancer. Try these behavioral and physical shifts to help keep your colon happy:
1. Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of developing colon and rectal cancer, especially in men. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can keep your gut in good shape.
2. Exercise regularly
Regular exercise can keep your heart healthy, help you maintain your weight, and help you live a longer life. Exercise can also decrease your risk of developing colorectal cancer and increase your chances of surviving if you were to develop colon cancer. Aim for 150- 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75-150 minutes of vigorous exercise a week can protect against colon cancer. Moderate activities will cause you to breathe faster (brisk walking, biking, some gardening and housework). Vigorous exercise causes you to use your large muscle groups, makes your heart beat faster and causes you to sweat. Remember: move more and sit less! Decrease the amount of time you are sitting, lying down, watching TV or looking at your phone or computer each day. Talk to your doctor about the type, duration and level of exercise that is right for you.
3. Avoid diets high in red meat
Limit red meat and processed foods such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs and deli-style meats. Interestingly, processed meats increase the risk of colon cancer to twice that of eating red meat.
How you prepare your food matters, too. Cooking meat at a very high temp (i.e. frying, broiling, grilling) exposes you to carcinogens that can harm your gut. Cooking in the oven or microwave can help to avoid these chemicals that can lead to cancer. Some studies have shown cooking with garlic and onions may also decrease your risk of colorectal cancer.
4. Get enough vitamin D
Vitamin D is thought to have a protective effect against the development of colorectal cancer. Ask your doctor whether you should consider testing your vitamin D levels and/or beginning a vitamin D supplement.
5. Put the cigarettes down
Smoking increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer, among other conditions. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting the habit.
6. Limit your alcohol intake
Moderate to heavy alcohol use is linked to colorectal cancer. Experts suggest having no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
Demographic risk factors for colorectal cancer
However, there are some risk factors you can't control. For example, some populations are at an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. These groups should take extra care when focusing on their colon health.
Personal or family history
Those with a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer are at a greater risk of developing colon cancer. Your family history plays an important role, too. One in three people who develop colorectal cancers has a family history of the disease.
American Indian and Alaska Native people have the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the US, followed by African American men and women. Jewish people of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) have one of the highest colorectal cancer risks of any ethnic group in the world.
More rarely, 5% of patients who develop colorectal cancer have a genetic syndrome. These patients have an inherited gene mutation that causes family cancer syndromes.
The older you are, the greater your risk for developing colon cancer, especially after age 50. However, there has been a recent increase in colon cancer deaths in adults under 50. This increase has been seen more in young African Americans.
Because of this, in 2021, the American Cancer Society and the US Preventative Services Task Force lowered the recommended age to start getting colonoscopies from 50 to 45.
For young people who do get colorectal cancer, it tends to be more aggressive. The reason is not yet clear. Some medical professionals think the increase in colon cancer among young people may be related to lifestyle factors such as increasing rates of obesity, less physical activity, chemicals in the environment, abnormal gut bacteria and unhealthy diets causing more inflammation in the gut.
If you are concerned about your risk factors, talk to your doctor about what you can do to lower your risk.
Preventing colon cancer through screening
Thankfully, with regular screening, a gastroenterologist (a doctor who specializes in the GI tract) can give you peace of mind about your gut health.
Regular screenings allow your gastroenterologist to find and remove polyps (outpouchings in the colon) that could become cancerous in the future. From the time the first abnormal cells start to grow, it usually takes about 10 years for them to develop into colorectal cancer.
Available screening tests include:
- FIT (fecal immunochemical test) or gFOBT (guaiac-based fecal occult blood test) every year
- Stool DNA test every three years
- CT colonography or flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years
- Colonoscopy every 10 years
Regular screening can give you peace of mind that your gut is healthy and well. Talk to your doctor about the options for colorectal cancer screening and which method of screening is right for you.
Average-risk adults in good health should be screened for colorectal cancer starting at age 45 and through age 75. For people between 76 and 85, screening decisions should be made jointly with your doctor based on your preferences, lifestyle, health status and prior screening history. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that otherwise healthy people who do not have the risk factors have a colonoscopy every 10 years.
People with a higher risk of colorectal cancer may require screening at an earlier age. If you have risk factors for colorectal cancer, ask your doctor when to start screening and how often screening is recommended for you.
Bottom line on colorectal cancer
While some risk factors may be out of your control, there are steps you can take today to improve your peace of mind and take control of your risk. In addition to keeping up with screenings, remember to manage your weight, get regular physical activity, eat a healthy diet and minimize alcohol and smoking.
If you have questions about your personal risk for colorectal cancer, talk to your primary care doctor or find a gastroenterologist near you today.
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