Getting smart about colon cancer
Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States — but it may also be one of the easiest cancers to avoid. It’s highly preventable. Having colonoscopies starting at age 50 reduces the likelihood of developing cancer but also increases the chances of finding it early.
What is it?
Colorectal cancer often known simply as colon cancer occurs in the large intestine (the colon) or in the passage that connects the colon to the anus (the rectum). It usually starts as a small clump of noncancerous cells called polyps that become cancerous over time.
When discovered early it’s highly treatable — in fact patients whose cancer is caught at the earliest stages have a survival rate of nearly 90 percent. The Colon Cancer Alliance (CCA) estimates that there are over a million colon cancer survivors in the United States alone.
What are the risk factors?
Some factors that can increase your risk cannot be changed such as being over age 50 being African-American having a family history of cancer or having diabetes or certain intestinal conditions.
Other risk factors are behavior-related. These include drinking heavily smoking eating a low-fiber or high-fat diet or being sedentary or obese.
How do you prevent it?
No one can eliminate the risk of colorectal cancer completely but you can take steps to lower your chances of developing it. Here are five things you can do to protect yourself:
- If you’re over age 50 get regular screenings. Colonoscopies can catch polyps before they become cancerous and early forms of the disease are highly treatable. They’re the one screening in multiple studies that has been shown to reduce mortality from the cancer. Other screening methods including flexible sigmoidoscopies virtual colonoscopies and double-contrast barium enemas can also be effective reports the CCA.
- Eat more plants and less meat. Diets high in fruits vegetables and fiber may reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer while diets high in red meat may increase it. One study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that out of nearly 80000 adults vegetarians had a 22 percent lower risk than meat eaters. Fish like salmon and tuna may be beneficial too thanks to their high levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids the American Cancer Society reports.
- Stay active. Exercising regularly could reduce your odds of developing colorectal cancer by up to 40 percent. According to the National Cancer Institute physical activity helps you maintain a healthy weight balance hormones regulate insulin and reduce inflammation. Aim to get 30 to 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
- Consider calcium. Research suggests that a higher calcium intake could make a difference. Strive to get the recommended 1000 to 1200 mg calcium per day from foods like low-fat dairy leafy greens and legumes. The National Cancer Institute does not recommend taking calcium supplements to prevent colorectal cancer.
- Get enough vitamin D. People with adequate vitamin D intakes have lower colorectal cancer rates than people who don’t get enough perhaps because vitamin D helps the immune system fight off harmful tumor growth according to a study published in Gut. Aim to get 15 micrograms of vitamin D per day from sources like salmon eggs and fortified low-fat dairy or orange juice.
- Quit smoking and drink only in moderation. Longtime smokers are more likely to get colorectal cancer than nonsmokers. Similarly heavy alcohol use may also increase your cancer risk perhaps because heavy drinkers have lower levels of beneficial folic acid according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. If you smoke ask your doctor for help quitting. If you drink alcohol stick to no more than one drink per day for women or two for men.
Colorectal cancer can be scary to think about but it’s also highly preventable. Lower your risk by taking charge of your own health — with screening and smart lifestyle choices colon cancer is a fight you can win.