Reducing the risk of colon cancer is important to both men and women, for whom it is the third leading cause of cancer death. Colon cancer statistics are often combined with rectal cancer to describe colorectal cancer, because both types originate in the large intestine. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., trailing only lung cancer.
Key Facts About the Risk of Colon Cancer
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The American Cancer Society reports that the five-year survival rate for colon cancer is 65%. This is worse than the five-year survival rates for a number of other cancers such as prostate (99%), melanoma (92%), breast (89%), and urinary bladder (81%). People should be highly motivated to avoid this awful disease.
About 90% of those diagnosed with colon cancer are older than 50 years old. So age is a major risk factor, but there are many others, both controllable and uncontrollable. Uncontrollable risk factors besides age include:
- race – African-Americans are at higher risk
- inherited genes/syndromes
- family history of colon cancer or polyps
- personal history of colon cancer or polyps
- inflammatory intestinal conditions such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
According to the Mayo Clinic and other sources, key controllable factors likely to increase one’s risk of colon cancer are:
- a diet low in fiber and high in fat
- a sedentary lifestyle (physical inactivity)
- type 2 diabetes (mainly a controllable disease)
- heavy alcohol use
Reducing the Risk of Colon Cancer
People can and should make lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of colon cancer. Research suggests that each of the following will help reduce risk:
- Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise most days of the week for at least 30 minutes at an aerobic pace.
- Stop smoking.
- Limit alcohol consumption (no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks for men).
Exercise is a critical factor in reducing risk for multiple cancers, including colon and breast cancer as well as heart disease and stroke. Exercise, or increased physical activity, is the magic bullet in lifestyle factors for good health, and can beneficially affect other colon cancer risk factors such as obesity and diabetes. But people who have been inactive for a while should first obtain medical clearance and then begin exercising slowly and build up gradually to a brisk walking pace, for example.
Important Ways to Increase Colon Cancer Survival
Colon cancer screening is the most important step in preventing colon cancer and in catching it early when it is highly treatable. Adults at average risk should get screened starting at age 50, or 45 if African-American. There are multiple screening options and these should be discussed with one’s doctor to choose the most appropriate one.
A colonoscopy every 10 years if no polyps or cancer is found in the first colonoscopy is a popular screening option, but some might prefer a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years, or a double contrast barium enema every five years. There are other choices available as well, including annual fecal occult blood testing.
People who have above average risk for colon cancer may be treated with medications or surgery to head off the cancer. Following a recommended screening or treatment program is the best way to increase a person’s chance of colon cancer survival because early detection and treatment are highly successful.
People should be aware of colon cancer symptoms and warning signs so that they can get checked out as soon as possible. These include:
- a change in bowel habits (constipation, diarrhea, stool consistency) that persists for more than a week or two
- blood in the stool or bleeding from the rectum
- continuing abdominal problems like cramps, gas, or pain
- weakness or fatigue
- unexplained weight loss
- a feeling that the bowel doesn’t completely empty
Reducing Risk of Getting and Dying from Colon Cancer
It is critically important that adults increase their colon cancer awareness and become familiar with warning signs and recommended screening schedules. All adults 50 and over (and African-Americans 45 and over) should be getting regular colon cancer screenings. Regular screenings are the best way to detect and increase colon cancer survival. Colon cancer risk can be reduced by diet, exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding the abuse of alcohol and tobacco.