There are a couple important things to know about colon cancer. Let’s start with the bad: It is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths around the world, with more than 50,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. On a more positive note, it is one of the few cancers you can actually prevent by taking actions to protect yourself.
That’s not to say that it is 100 percent preventable. There are some risk factors outside your control, including:
- Age (Most colorectal cancers occur in people over the age of 50)
- Personal or family history of colon polyps
- Family history of colon cancer
- Race (African Americans are at greater risk)
- Inflammatory intestinal conditions, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease
Still, a range of active measures can significantly reduce your chances of getting colon cancer. And even if you do get it, early diagnosis and treatment can give your medical team a much better chance of curing it.
Consider these strategies for bolstering your body’s defenses against colon cancer:
1. Maintain Healthy Weight
Being overweight, particularly if you are obese, is a risk factor for at least a dozen different cancers – including colon cancer. Obesity will increase not only your risk of colon cancer, but also your risk of dying, when compared to people who are at a healthy weight. Your first objective should be to stop gaining weight. Then you should try to shed some pounds, through a slow and steady approach. Crash diets might offer quick results, but you’ll have a better chance of keeping the weight off by making sustainable lifestyle changes.
2. Get regular exercise
Exercise is one of the keys to keeping your body healthy and protected against a wide range of ailments. But research suggests there may be a specific reason why it offers a boost against colon cancer. When you live a more active lifestyle, it gets things moving inside your digestive tract. That means your stool – and any carcinogens it may be transporting – spends less time sitting in your bowel, where cancerous polyps can form. Research is ongoing in this area, but studies have shown that people who engage in high levels of physical activity have a nearly 20 percent lower risk of colon cancer compared with people who were the least physically active.
Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five or six days a week. To improve your chances of sticking with it, find something you enjoy, whether it’s jogging, biking, swimming or just taking brisk walks with friends.
3. Stop smoking
Smoking is a carcinogen. It increases the risk for almost every cancer. You may think of it as something that affects only your mouth, throat and lungs. But the chemicals you inhale eventually work their way through your entire body, including your gastrointestinal system. And not only does it increase your risk of getting cancer, but it can also reduce your chances of survival if you do. Your surgical risks are higher and your ability to tolerate chemotherapy will be hampered.
4. Avoid heavy drinking
Having a drink or two won’t significantly increase your risk of colon cancer. But heavy drinking is associated with increased risk. The American Cancer Society suggests no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. The organization defines a drink as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
5. Eat a healthy diet
You can improve your overall health by eating well. High fiber diets built around fruits, vegetables and whole grains have been associated with lower risk of both colon cancer and rectal cancer. On the flip side, red meats, processed foods and refined carbohydrates (including white bread) have been linked to increased risk of colon cancer.
6. Get screened for colon cancer
This may be the most important thing you can do to protect yourself against colon cancer. These tests are designed to detect polyps before they become cancerous, or colon and rectal cancers early at a more treatable stage. The American Cancer Society recommends testing starting at age 45 for people at average risk. However, tests may be recommended earlier if you have colon cancer symptoms or a family history of the disease.
The best-known option is the standard colonoscopy, where your doctor uses a thin, flexible tube – equipped with a light and camera – to examine the colon and rectum. During the procedure, abnormal growths can be removed for testing. For people with average risk, colonoscopies are repeated every 10 years. The test can reduce the risk of death from colon cancer by more than 60 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute.
There are other types of colon cancer screening tests. These include virtual colonoscopies and tests that require you to collect a stool sample at home – a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) and Cologuard. If these tests are positive, a follow-up colonoscopy would be recommended.
If you have questions about colon cancer screenings, talk with your doctor to explore your options.
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