How to Lower Your Risk of Colon Cancer

Colon cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States. Roughly one in 20 people will be diagnosed with it during his or her lifetime. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, making it the perfect time to discuss some of the ways to lower your risk.

Almost all colon cancer begins as precancerous polyps, or abnormal growths, in the rectum or colon. Polyps can also be benign, and may be present in the colon for years before cancer develops. Luckily, there are things you can do to lower your risk of developing colon cancer.

Colorectal cancer screenings can detect precancerous polyps for removal before they turn into cancer. Screenings also give you a better shot at detecting cancer early, when it’s easiest to treat. The American Cancer Society and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force both recommend screenings starting at age 50 for those within a normal risk range. Your doctor can help you determine if earlier screenings are appropriate based on your health history.

Most people know about colonoscopies, but it's important to note that there are also non-invasive screening methods. The fecal immunochemical test (FIT) evaluates blood found in the stool. If occult (hidden) blood is detected, further testing will be needed. But FIT testing itself requires no drug or dietary restrictions, and it's less physically taxing than other screening techniques.

Regular exercise is crucial to overall good health and a well-functioning immune system. Sedentary lifestyles are linked to increased risk of colorectal cancers. Research shows that active adults have a 40 to 50 percent reduced risk of developing colon cancer, and regular exercise may even reduce cancer risk in those who are obese or overweight.

Eat a nutritious diet rich in fiber, fresh fruits, and vegetables. Purchase organic produce whenever possible to avoid ingesting carcinogenic pesticides. Diets rich in veggies, fruits, and whole grains are linked to lowered colon cancer risk. Eat less red meat, and avoid processed meats like hot dogs, salami, and lunch meats, which have been tied to a higher colon cancer risk.

Avoid foods processed with sodium nitrite. Highly processed commercial meats like bacon, sausage, and lunch meats are usually preserved with sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite converts to nitrosamine in the body, which is a known carcinogen. The regular consumption of nitrites and processed meats have been linked with an increased risk for colon cancers compared to those who avoid them.

Don’t smoke. Long-term smokers have a higher risk of developing and dying from colorectal cancers than nonsmokers do. If you smoke and need help quitting, look into smoking cessation programs. You can also refer to the American Cancer Society’s Guide to Quitting Smoking. Getting help and support increases your chances of quitting successfully.

Limit or avoid alcohol. Colon cancer has been associated with heavy drinking. Recommended amounts are one drink per day for women, and no more than two per day for men. One drink equates to five ounces of wine, a twelve ounce beer, or 1 ½ ounces of 80 proof hard liquor.

Remember that a preventive lifestyle is key to boosting your health and longevity over time. Any adjustments you need to make are well worth your efforts, but if change feels overwhelming, take it step by step. Quitting smoking and committing to regular colorectal screenings are two of the most powerful things you can do to reduce your risks. Over time, you can adopt a healthier diet with reduced intake of red and processed meats. Identify the most pressing risk factors potentially impacting your health, and implement a strategy to tackle them one by one. 

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