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6 tips to reduce your risk of colon cancer

By The Health News Team | March 29, 2023
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If someone told you they had the secret to preventing a certain type of cancer, wouldn’t you be interested? How about if it wasn’t really a secret at all?

Well, the American Cancer Society (ACS) has laid out six tips for lowering your risk for colorectal cancer — also called colon cancer — and they’re happy to share them. In fact, they want everyone to share the information and help prevent more cases of colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women combined.

“Preventing health issues from developing is the best way to avoid the pain, stress and other expenses that come with treating them,” says Dr. Susan Chu, chief of gastroenterology for Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “It will also increase your chances of living a longer, healthier life, and helps you set a positive example for your loved ones and others around you.”

According to the ACS, you can lower your risk for colorectal cancer by following these tips:

  1. Get screened for colorectal cancer. Screenings look for cancer before signs and symptoms develop, including changes in bowel movements, visible blood in stools, unintended weight loss and fatigue. Screening can find colorectal cancer earlier, when treatments are more likely to be successful.

    Without screening, precancerous polyps or cancer cells may not be detected and could continue to progress without treatment. Most guidelines call for screening to start at age 45 for people at average risk. Talk with your doctor about when you should start screening and which colon cancer screening tests might be right for you.

    “It’s important to understand that you do not want to wait to be screened until you have symptoms,” Dr. Chu says. “By then, it can be too late. We are all busy, but we need to take care of ourselves.”

  2. Eat a healthy diet. Diets that include lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains have been linked with a decreased risk of colorectal cancer. Eating less red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb, and processed meats, such as hot dogs and some luncheon meats, can also lower your risk.

    “The World Health Organization (WHO) published a report in 2015 that classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means that it is a definite cause of cancer in humans,” Dr. Chu says. “The chemicals formed during the processing and cooking of red and processed meat can damage the lining of the colon, leading to the formation of cancer cells.”

    According to Dr. Chu, high-fat foods with saturated fat and trans fats, such as fried foods, fast foods and many processed foods, also can increase the risk of colon cancer. The same is true of low fiber foods, such as white bread and white rice.

    “Dietary fiber is important because it helps move waste through the digestive system,” Dr. Chu says. “This reduces the time that potentially harmful substances come into contact with the colon lining.”

  3. Exercise regularly. If you are not physically active, you may have a greater chance of developing colorectal cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity and two days of muscle strengthening activity each week.

    “Overall, a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to an increased risk of colon cancer in a few ways,” Dr. Chu says. “It can increase obesity and insulin resistance, which are both risk factors for colon cancer. It can weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off cancer cells and other harmful substances. And a sedentary lifestyle can also increase inflammation in the body, which can contribute to the development of cancer.”

  4. Take control of your weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of colon or rectal cancer. Following the two tips above — eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly — can help you control your weight.

    According to the CDC, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference are tools your doctor can use to estimate your weight’s relation to your potential disease risk. The CDC offers a BMI calculator to determine your BMI. A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 falls within the healthy weight range, 25.0 to 29.9 is within the overweight range, and 30.0 or above falls within the obese range. When it comes to waist circumference, you may have a higher risk of developing obesity-related conditions if you are a man whose waist circumference is more than 40 inches or a nonpregnant woman whose waist circumference is more than 35 inches.

  5. Don’t smoke. Longtime smokers are more likely to develop colon or rectal cancer than people who don’t smoke. Quitting smoking can improve your overall health and reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer, as well as other cancers, heart disease, lung disease and other smoking-related illnesses.

    While smoking is an addiction and kicking the habit can be challenging, people successfully quit smoking every day by focusing on a clear plan and leaning on the support offered by friends and family, counseling or medications. There are many online resources available to help you quit, including Kick It California, the ACS and the CDC.

  6. Avoid alcohol. Alcohol use has been linked with a higher risk of colorectal cancer. It is best to not drink alcohol. But if you do, the ACS recommends no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. A single drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1 1/2 ounces of hard liquor.

    According to Dr. Chu, it is important to be mindful of your genetic predisposition to alcoholism and to find healthier behaviors to unwind or celebrate, such as exercise and substance-free socializing. Evaluate your drinking habits and seek professional care if needed.

“Taking care of your health is a long-term investment that pays off,” Dr Chu says. “Talk with your doctor about any health concerns and screening for colorectal cancer. Along with minimizing or eliminating your lifestyle risk factors and paying attention to significant changes in your bowel habits or persistent rectal bleeding, screening — and early treatment, if cancer is diagnosed — reduces the risk of dying from the illness.”

Learn more about colorectal cancer; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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