Colon cancer is a common type of cancer. A number of risk factors increase the likelihood of developing colon cancer. A risk factor is something that increases your likelihood of developing cancer. Some risk factors can be changed (like diet) but others can not (like having inflammatory bowel disease [IBD]). Some risk factors for colon cancer are:
- IBD: People who have IBD (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis) are at an increased risk of developing cancer.
- Age: Older people, specifically over the age of 50, are more likely to get colon cancer, but it can occur in younger people, too.
- Diet: Studies have shown that a diet high in fat and calories and low in fiber can contribute to colon cancer.
- Being overweight: Maintaining a healthy weight is important to overall health and preventing the development of cancer.
- Polyps: A colon polyp is a growth on the wall of the colon or rectum. Some polyps in some people can develop into colon cancer. The presence of polyps increases the risk of colon cancer, which is why screening colonoscopies are recommended to check for polyps and to remove any that are there. Certain rare genetic syndromes result in multiple polyps and greatly increase the risk of colon cancer (familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and Peutz-Jegher syndrome to name a few).
- Personal medical history: A person with a history of colon cancer has an increased likelihood of developing a second colon cancer.
- Family history: A person whose parent, sibling, or child has had colon cancer is at an increased risk, particularly if the person had cancer at a young age. In addition, a personal history of other malignancies may also make colon cancer more likely. A genetic syndrome known as HNPCC (hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer) syndrome puts affected people at great risk of developing colon as well as uterine, gastric, urothelial and pancreaticobiliary cancers. Screening is particularly critical in these patients.
Some people who are at high risk for cancer may never have it. Conversely, some people who are at low risk may develop cancer in their lifetimes. Doctors can't always explain why this happens. Even so, it is important to focus on the risk factors that can be changed to help reduce the risk of colon cancer.
People who have IBD are at increased risk for developing colon cancer. But it's important to remember that having ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease does not necessarily mean that you will get cancer.
Preventing colon cancer: Screening for colon cancer is important for prevention. Most colon cancers develop from benign polyps. Discovering these polyps during a colonoscopy and having them removed may help prevent colon cancer. People who have IBD are at increased risk for developing colon cancer, but it's important to remember that having ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease does not necessarily mean that you will develop cancer. Ask your doctor how often you need colonoscopies for colon cancer surveillance.
Some dietary changes might be helpful. Lowering fat, calorie content, and meat and alcohol consumption may also help prevent colon cancer. A sedentary (not physically active) lifestyle combined with a diet high in saturated fats could contribute to colon cancer risk.
Research also suggests that smoking cessation, use of aspirin, decreased alcohol use, exercise, and dietary supplements can also reduce colon cancer risk.
In brief, the following lifestyle choices may help lower the risk of developing colon cancer, and lead to a healthier life.
- Get five servings of vegetables, fruits and whole grains a day for fiber, calcium and folic acid.
- Limit consumption of red meat and saturated fat.
- Exercise five days a week for at least half an hour.
- Quit smoking.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
If you're concerned about colon cancer risk, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help you determine your risk, and recommend the prevention methods that will work best for you.
American Cancer Society, Inc. "What Are the Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer?" American Cancer Society 05 Mar 2008. 30 Jul 2010.
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. "Risk, Screening & Prevention." Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center 17 Sept 2003. 22 Nov 2011.
National Cancer Institute. "Colorectal Cancer Prevention." U.S. National Institutes of Health 13 Nov 2008. 14 Jan 2008.