We sometimes hear of a friend, a relative or a coworker having colon cancer or getting their colonoscopy and we wonder: What is my risk of developing colon caner? Do I need to get a colonoscopy? What can I do to decrease my risk?
Let’s go over an overview of the factors that increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer and what you can start doing today to decrease the risk. Then, plug in some information about yourself and your habits and history into the National Cancer Institute’s Colorectal Cancer Risk Assessment Tool to obtain an estimate of your risk.
Colorectal cancer is cancer that develops in the colon or the rectum, both parts of the large intestine. Most colorectal cancers start as a small growth, a polyp, that arises from the lining of the colon or the rectum. Polyps may grow over years to become cancer. Most polyps are small and do not cause any symptoms.
Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer related death in the U.S. after lung cancer. The rates of new colorectal cancer cases and deaths among individuals older than 50 have been decreasing in the U.S. mainly due to increased awareness and screening. However, the incidence is increasing in younger adults, for unknown reasons. This is concerning, particularly since we currently do not recommend screening for colorectal cancer in asymptomatic average risk individuals younger than 50.
Family history of colorectal cancer
Personal history of colorectal polyps
Diet high in fat, low in fiber, high in red meat
Certain inherited genetic syndromes
Inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis)
While you can not change certain risk factors such as the genes you inherited or your family history, there are several lifestyle changes you can make today.
Starting with your diet, you can limit the amount of processed or red meat you consume and avoid fatty foods while increasing the fibers in your diet. Such a diet is associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer. If you stay away from processed foods and get in the habit of enjoying a bowl of fresh salad, not only will you decrease your risk of colorectal cancer, but you will also feel so much better.
Stop smoking today. Smoking is so bad for you in so many ways. From increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, colorectal cancer and so many other cancers, to causing lung diseases, deteriorating you bone health, affecting your teeth and your breath and more.
If you smoke, talk to your doctor about available options whether prescription medications or over the counter nicotine supplements or other approaches that may be right for you.
Start exercising. Having an active lifestyle is associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer as well as a lower cardiovascular risk and an improved general wellbeing. Pick an activity you can enjoy and start with small steps. Set reasonable goals and increase gradually. In the age of wearable electronics, it’s a great idea to use a device that tracks your activity and gives you feedback.
Lose weight. If you are overweight, diet and exercise are your best friends. Yes it’s hard and keeping the weight off is the biggest challenge. Talk to your doctor and consider seeing a nutritionist for guidance and meal planning.
Get screened. Colorectal cancer is preventable. We can remove the polyps before they turn into cancer. We now have evidence that this strategy works as we can see the significant decrease in the rates of new cases of colorectal cancer among patients who underwent screening. Colonoscopy is the preferred method for colorectal cancer screening as it detects polyps and it allows us to remove them during the same procedure. It is a safe, effective and very well tolerated test. Other screening tests are also available. Talk to your doctor about screening for colorectal cancer and get screened. Any screening is better than no screening.
Use the National Cancer Institute’s Colorectal Cancer Risk Assessment Tool to obtain an estimate of your risk.
If you would like to discuss your options for colorectal cancer screening or to schedule a colonoscopy, please call Digestive Care Specialists at 301-288-1319.