Take steps to reduce your colorectal cancer risk
When it comes to colorectal cancers, the most important thing to consider is time.
If you want to reduce your risk for colorectal cancer, start focusing on prevention as early as possible, and begin screening at the recommended age.
“Colon cancers develop over long periods of time,” says Robert Bresalier, M.D. “They don’t develop overnight. So a one-week change in lifestyle is not going to have an impact.”
Colorectal cancer causes are complex. But there are ways to reduce your risk.
Don't skip colorectal screening
Six in 100 people – men and women – will develop colorectal cancer. If you are at average risk for the disease, with no family history or inherited risk factors, you should begin getting regular colonoscopies at age 50. African American men and women should begin screening at age 45.
“Where we know we can have an impact is through screening,” Bresalier says.
“Because it is slow to develop, the most common symptom of colorectal cancer is no symptom at all,” Bresalier says. “Screening is the most important thing we can do to prevent the disease.”
Stay active to stay healthy
If you want to have an impact on your risk for colorectal cancer, staying active is important.
“It does seem like activity, that is exercise or lack of exercise, impacts the risk for colon cancer,” Bresalier says. “And certainly, obesity seems to play a role.”
A healthy weight and regular activity have beneficial effects on hormone levels as well as the amount of time the colon is exposed to cancer-causing substances.
Weight and exercise also benefit the microbiome, the largest collection of bacteria in your body. The presence of beneficial bacteria in colon has been linked to a lower risk for cancer.
Colon cancers develop over long periods of time. They don’t develop overnight. So a one-week change in lifestyle is not going to have an impact.
Maintain a healthy diet
It’s probably no surprise that maintaining a healthy diet is good for your colon.
“High fat, high meat diets are associated with a high risk,” says Bresalier.
And like weight and exercise, diet can affect the balance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria in your gut. This can affect your cancer risk.
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends filling at least two-thirds of your plate with non-starchy vegetables and whole grains and one-third or less with lean animal protein or plant-based protein.
Another factor that may play a role is alcohol. There’s some risk for colon cancer, especially rectal cancer, with a high intake of alcohol.
The AICR recommends women have no more than one alcoholic drink per day, and men no more than two drinks per day.
In addition to watching what you eat, Bresalier also recommends you talk to your doctor about the risks benefits of aspirin for colorectal cancer prevention.
“A common-sense, healthy diet with modest fat, high fiber, and a healthy lifestyle with high activity are protective and make sense,” says Bresalier. “It’s never too late to change your lifestyle.”
Other risk factors
There are steps you can take to reduce your risk for colorectal cancer, but some risk factors are beyond your control. They include the following:
- Age 50 or older
- African American
- family history of colorectal cancer or precancerous polyps
- Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
- Personal or family history of familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
- Personal or family history of Lynch syndrome (hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer syndrome -HNPCC)
If any of these risk factors apply to you, talk to your doctor. You may need to be screened earlier or more often.