Colon Cancer: Ways to Lower Your Risk

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You won’t often hear me say good things about cancer, but this Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, I will tell you the best thing about colon cancer: We can beat it. More and more research is emerging that is showing us how to prevent and catch many, if not most, cases of colorectal cancer. Based on the latest data, here’s what you can do to avoid becoming a victim of the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.

What we know works:

Get a colonoscopy
There’s no way around it; colonoscopies are the single most powerful weapon we have when it comes to fighting colon cancer. In most cases, it takes abnormal cells in the colon about 10 to 15 years to develop into cancer, which means if we can find and remove abnormal polyps fast enough, they won’t cause a problem. People at average risk should get a regular colonoscopy starting at age 50, but those with a family history or risk factors for colon cancer may need to be screened earlier. In addition, people with a strong family history can also get a variety of genetic tests to see if they may have a syndrome that can dramatically increase colon cancer risk, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC). Though not many people look forward to colonoscopies, they are very safe and brief procedures. You can learn what to expect before you go here.

Lose weight and drop the meat and beer
Multiple studies have shown that people who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk of colorectal cancer. This link seems to be particularly strong for people with more fat around their middle and for men. Regular moderate to vigorous physical activity has been linked to lower cancer risk. In addition, several studies have linked consumption of alcohol and red and processed meats to increased colon cancer. Switching from beer to water or tea and from red meat to leaner proteins like fish and chicken can act as a double-whammy by removing risky foods and helping to whittle your waistline.

Up the fiber
Several large studies have linked a diet high in fiber to reduced colon cancer risk. Plus, diets high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains have also been shown to help. More studies on the effects of fiber on colon cancer are underway, but in the meantime you can learn how to get more fiber in your diet here.

Stop smoking
With all we’ve learned about the dangers of tobacco over the past 50 years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that smoking has been linked to colon cancer. You can benefit nearly every organ in your body by quitting today.

Potential solutions in the pipeline:

Several new prevention or treatment options are still being researched.

Vitamins and supplements
Many studies have looked at the effects of different vitamins and minerals on colon cancer risk, but so far the evidence hasn’t been definitive enough that any are recommended to the general public for this purpose. For example, some studies have suggested that vitamin D may lower colorectal cancer risk. Other studies have suggested that calcium may also have a similar effect, but because high calcium intake has been linked to more prostate cancer in men, the American Cancer Society (ACS) does not recommend taking calcium specifically to reduce cancer risk. According to the ACS, some studies have shown that diets high in magnesium may lower risk, especially for women, but more research is needed.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
People who regularly use aspirin or other NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen may have a lower risk of developing polyps or colon cancer. According to the ACS, aspirin has been a particular focus of several studies that have shown that it may help prevent polyp growth in people who previously had polyps removed. However, NSAIDs can have serious side effects, such as bleeding in the digestive tract, and are not currently recommended as a cancer prevention strategy.

Estrogen and progesterone may decrease colon cancer risk. Some research suggests that women who undergo hormone replacement therapy after menopause have a lower risk of developing colon cancer, but if they do develop cancer it may be more serious. For younger women, oral birth control pills may also reduce cancer risk, though this needs to be studied further.