While there’s wisdom in the adage “prevention is better than cure,” not all cancers can be prevented. Fortunately, colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer in the United States (excluding skin cancers), is “preventable, beatable, and treatable,” with screening, diet, exercise, and improved lifestyle.
About 75% of colon cancer cases can be prevented naturally.1
And prevention is a must in the light of a very recent study that finds that even as colorectal cancer incidences in the older population are dropping, they are rising among the millennials.
In fact, those born in 1990 have 2 times the risk of colon cancer and 4 times the risk of rectal cancer than those born in 1950.2 More worryingly, in the younger generation, the cancers are often detected at an advanced stage. This makes knowing the symptoms and the risk factors all the more important. Check whether you are at risk for colorectal cancer and follow these 5 simple ways to prevent colon cancer and rectal cancer.
1. Screen For Polyps In The Colon And The Rectum
Colorectal cancer usually starts with a polyp, a small growth on the inner lining of the rectum or colon (large intestine). This polyp is not yet malignant and does not have symptoms. It takes about 10 to 15 years to become cancerous. Screening can help detect these precancerous growths, and they can be removed easily. This is why regular screening is an essential preventive measure.
If You Are 50 Or Older
Age is a risk factor. Almost 90 out of 100 people with colorectal cancer are 50 or older. The chances of diagnosis rise progressively after you turn 40 and sharply after you turn 50. Get screened regularly once you turn 50.3
In the light of the new study, however, screening may be recommended for the younger generation well before they hit 50, depending on their symptoms and risk profiles.
Gender does not seem to be a major risk factor, though men are slightly more at risk, possibly due to lifestyle risk factors.
If You Have A Family History Of Polyps And Cancer
Your genes are another risk factor. About 5 to 10% of colorectal cancer cases are due to hereditary conditions like tumors in the colon (FAP) and Lynch syndrome. If you have a family history of polyps, uterine cancer, colon cancer, and inflammatory bowel disease, screen regularly, even before you turn 50.
Screening Tests For Colorectal Cancer
- Fecal occult blood test checks under the microscope whether your stool contains traces of blood, which indicates polyps or cancer in the colorectal passage. This is to be done every year.
- Barium enema test involves passing barium into the gastrointestinal tract through an enema. X-rays of the gastrointestinal tract are then taken and checked for abnormalities. This should be done every 5 years.
- Sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy involve inserting a thin tube with a lens into the anus to check for abnormalities. Polyps or tissue samples can also be removed and checked for cancer.4 Sigmoidoscopy needs to be done every 5 years, while colonoscopy can be done every 10 years.
2. Get The Right Diet
Interestingly, colorectal cancer was fairly uncommon in the States before the 20th century, but there’s been a sharp increase – in tandem with economic development – in the last 100 years. Today, the majority of colorectal cancers occur in industrialized countries. The rates are picking up in less developed countries too as they adopt a more Western lifestyle.5 This points to the role of environmental and lifestyle factors in increasing the risk for colorectal cancer.
A large part of your lifestyle involves what you eat. So follow these guidelines on what you should and shouldn’t eat to prevent colorectal cancer.
Fiber: Whole Grains And Sprouts
A good fiber intake moves wastes through the digestive tract faster and prevents toxic wastes from staying in the digestive system. Up your fiber quotient with foods like whole-grain cereals, sprouts, beans, and fresh fruits and vegetables.6 It is also a good idea to have less refined carbohydrates like white flour.7
Antioxidants: Colorful Veggies And Berries
Eat foods rich in antioxidants to fight off free radicals and prevent cell and tissue damage. Antioxidants like carotene and beta-carotene are useful in fighting free radicals. Foods rich in these antioxidants include red, yellow, orange, and green veggies. Green tea, which is rich in antioxidants, also helps.
Black raspberries and strawberries could inhibit colon cancer in rats by 80%.
Berries are also pitched as effective cancer fighters because of a group of antioxidant plant chemicals called polyphenols.
In a Medical College of Wisconsin study, berries like black raspberries and strawberries were found to inhibit colon cancer by 80% in rats. While their anti-cancer properties in humans are being studied further, the researchers have endorsed their positive role in cancer prevention.8 Being rich in polyphenols, prunes, or dried plums, also have the ability to lower cancer risk.9
Folic Acid (Vit. B9): Spinach And Beans
Folic acid is an established cancer fighter. It enables new cell and tissue formation and keeps red blood cells active and healthy. While folic acid supplements are widely available, increase your intake through natural sources like spinach, sprouts, beans, and citrus fruits.10
Calcium And Vitamin D: Milk, Cheese, And Sunlight
According to a World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) review, calcium may have a protective effect against cancer. At least 1000 mg/day of calcium a day is optimal.11 Natural sources of calcium include dairy products such as milk and cheese.
Vitamin D deficiency has been also implicated in an increased risk for cancer.12 Anyway, your body needs it to absorb calcium, so try soaking in the morning sun for about 10–15 minutes each day. You may also take supplements but the vitamin is best had from its natural source – sunlight.13
Magnesium: Pumpkin Seeds And Spinach
Magnesium has been found to reduce the risk of colorectal tumors. For every 100 mg extra magnesium a day, there’s a 13% lower risk of colorectal tumors and 12% lower risk of colorectal cancer.14
A cup of whole roasted and unsalted pumpkin seeds contain 168 mg magnesium, which can meet 41% of your daily requirement.15 Spinach too is a good source of magnesium.
Sulforaphane: Broccoli And Cabbage
Cabbage, brussels sprouts, and broccoli are cruciferous vegetables that have a compound called sulforaphane. It has been seen that sulforaphene can check the formation of colon tumors and also encourage cancer cell death.16
Garlic, Raw Or Cooked
The good effects of garlic extend to even preventing cancer. The more garlic you consume, cooked or raw, the lower your risk of stomach and colorectal cancer.17 Another study found that women who had the highest amount of garlic had 50% lower risk of cancer in the lower part of the colon compared to women who ate the least amount.18
Why is garlic so good? CDC says it might be because garlic is antibacterial, halts cancer-causing substances from causing damage, reduces cell multiplication (uncontrolled cell multiplication results in tumor), induces apoptosis or cell death, and increases DNA repair. Have at least one fresh clove of garlic a day. Chop or crush it to release the active ingredient, allicin.19 You should be eating these anticancer foods anyway.
Avoid Processed And Red Meat
Eating less processed or cured meat (ham, sausages, and bacon) and less red meat (beef, venison, and pork) can help you avoid colorectal cancer. If you eat more than 90 g of processed and red meat a day, try and bring it down to 70 g.20
However, don’t give up on grass-fed beef, as it has conjugated linoleic acid, a cancer-fighting compound.21
Even if your intake is not high, you can be at risk as cooking the meat at high temperatures for a long time can also release carcinogenic compounds and increase cancer risk.22
3. Exercise To Maintain A Healthy Weight
Obesity, which is a risk factor for many diseases, has an uneasy link to colon cancer too.23 It raises your cancer risk by 33%.
Bring your BMI below 25. Spend 2.5 hours every week, which is around 20 minutes every day, to do moderate aerobic exercises like fast walking or cycling.
Check your body mass index (BMI) to ensure that you are at a healthy weight. BMI more than 25 kg/sq m is associated with a 24% increase in the prevalence of colorectal tumors.24
Eating healthy and exercising can also keep those pounds at bay. Exercise is crucial for preventing any type of cancer. A sedentary lifestyle and long hours of sitting add to the risks of colorectal cancer. So get up and take that walk! Experts recommend about 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise (say fast walking or cycling) every week.25
4. Give Up Smoking
Smoking is a known risk factor for various cancers, and colorectal cancer is no exception. In the United States, of every 100 casualty of this disease, 12 have smoking to blame.26
Passive smoking is much a risk factor for colorectal cancer as active smoking.
If you don’t smoke but are exposed to secondhand smoke, take measures. Passive smokers can also get colorectal cancer earlier than active smokers.29
5. Cut Down On Alcohol
Alcohol use has been linked to a higher risk of cancers of the rectum and colon.30 Drinking also depletes folic acid, which is crucial in preventing cancers.
Up to 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men is within the safe limit.
It is advisable not to have more than 14 units of alcohol per week or 2 drinks per day – for women the quota is just 1 drink a day. A unit of alcohol is the amount of pure alcohol contained in an alcoholic beverage; this is usually mentioned on the bottle or can, so read the labels.
Take Control Before Cancer Does
You cannot control your genes or how they suddenly mutate and put you at risk of cancer. But you can certainly control your lifestyle and get regular screening tests. And that’s all you need to do to prevent the scourge called colorectal cancer.
Your Doubts Answered
1. I Have A Family History Of Colon Cancer. When Do I Start Getting Screened For It?
[expert_opinion expertname=’lauradankof’ opinion=”According to the American Cancer Society, if you have a family history of colon cancer in a first degree relative, is to begin screening at age 40 or 10 years before the youngest case in the immediate family of colon cancer. Colon cancer screening would be doing a colonoscopy. This screening should then be repeated every five years, provided your colonoscopy is normal. If you are found to have a polyp or precancerous polyp, you may need to repeat the colonoscopy even sooner.”]
|↑1||8 Ways to Prevent Colon Cancer. Siteman Cancer Center.|
|↑2||Study Finds Sharp Rise in Colon Cancer and Rectal Cancer Rates Among Young Adults. American Cancer Society.|
|↑3||Colorectal (colon) cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.|
|↑4||Colorectal Cancer Screening (PDQ®)–Patient Version. National Cancer Institute.|
|↑5||Curado, Maria-Paula, Brenda Edwards, Hai Rim Shin, Hans Storm, Jacques Ferlay, Mary Heanue, and Peter Boyle. Cancer incidence in five continents, Volume IX. IARC Press, International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2007.|
|↑6, ↑20, ↑25, ↑27||Preventing bowel cancer. National Health Service.|
|↑7||Chan, Andrew T., and Edward L. Giovannucci. “Primary prevention of colorectal cancer.” Gastroenterology 138, no. 6 (2010): 2029-2043.|
|↑8||Stoner, Gary D., Li-Shu Wang, Nancy Zikri, Tong Chen, Stephen S. Hecht, Chuanshu Huang, Christine Sardo, and John F. Lechner. “Cancer prevention with freeze-dried berries and berry components.” In Seminars in cancer biology, vol. 17, no. 5, pp. 403-410. Academic Press, 2007.|
|↑9||Yang, Yuqing, and Daniel D. Gallaher. “Effect of dried plums on colon cancer risk factors in rats.” Nutrition and cancer 53, no. 1 (2005): 117-125.|
|↑10||Keum, NaNa, and Edward L. Giovannucci. “Folic acid fortification and colorectal cancer risk.” American journal of preventive medicine 46, no. 3 (2014): S65-S72.|
|↑11||Calcium and Cancer Prevention. National Cancer Institute.|
|↑12||Feldman, David, Aruna V. Krishnan, Srilatha Swami, Edward Giovannucci, and Brian J. Feldman. “The role of vitamin D in reducing cancer risk and progression.” Nature reviews cancer 14, no. 5 (2014): 342-357.|
|↑13||Huncharek, Michael, Joshua Muscat, and Bruce Kupelnick. “Colorectal cancer risk and dietary intake of calcium, vitamin D, and dairy products: a meta-analysis of 26,335 cases from 60 observational studies.” Nutrition and cancer 61, no. 1 (2008): 47-69.|
|↑14||Wark, Petra A., Rosa Lau, Teresa Norat, and Ellen Kampman. “Magnesium intake and colorectal tumor risk: a case-control study and meta-analysis.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 96, no. 3 (2012): 622-631.|
|↑15||Basic Report: 12163, Seeds, pumpkin and squash seeds, whole, roasted, without salt. National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28, USDA|
|↑16||Byun, Sanguine, Seung Ho Shin, Jiman Park, Semi Lim, Eunjung Lee, Chaeyoon Lee, Dongeun Sung et al. “Sulforaphene suppresses growth of colon cancer‐derived tumors via induction of glutathione depletion and microtubule depolymerization.” Molecular nutrition & food research 60, no. 5 (2016): 1068-1078.|
|↑17||Fleischauer, Aaron T., Charles Poole, and Lenore Arab. “Garlic consumption and cancer prevention: meta-analyses of colorectal and stomach cancers.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 72, no. 4 (2000): 1047-1052.|
|↑18||Steinmetz, Kristi A., Lawrence H. Kushi, Roberd M. Bostick, Aaron R. Folsom, and John D. Potter. “Vegetables, fruit, and colon cancer in the lowa women’s health study.” American journal of epidemiology 139, no. 1 (1994): 1-15.|
|↑19||Garlic and Cancer Prevention. National Cancer Institute.|
|↑21||Daley, Cynthia A., Amber Abbott, Patrick S. Doyle, Glenn A. Nader, and Stephanie Larson. “A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef.” Nutrition journal 9, no. 1 (2010): 10.|
|↑22||Sinha, Rashmi, Wong Ho Chow, Martin Kulldorff, John Denobile, James Butler, Montserrat Garcia-Closas, Rusty Weil, Robert N. Hoover, and Nathaniel Rothman. “Well-done, grilled red meat increases the risk of colorectal adenomas.” Cancer Research 59, no. 17 (1999): 4320-4324.|
|↑23||Frezza, Eldo E., Mitchell S. Wachtel, and Maurizio Chiriva-Internati. “Influence of obesity on the risk of developing colon cancer.” Gut 55, no. 2 (2006): 285-291.|
|↑24||Lee, Junga, Jeffrey A. Meyerhardt, Edward Giovannucci, and Justin Y. Jeon. “Association between body mass index and prognosis of colorectal cancer: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies.” PloS one 10, no. 3 (2015): e0120706.|
|↑26||Chao, Ann, Michael J. Thun, Eric J. Jacobs, S. Jane Henley, Carmen Rodriguez, and Eugenia E. Calle. “Cigarette smoking and colorectal cancer mortality in the cancer prevention study II.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 92, no. 23 (2000): 1888-1896.|
|↑28||Wong, Helen Pui Shan, L. E. Yu, Emily Kai Yee Lam, Emily Kin Ki Tai, William Ka Kei Wu, and Chi-Hin Cho. “Nicotine promotes colon tumor growth and angiogenesis through β-adrenergic activation.” Toxicological Sciences 97, no. 2 (2007): 279-287.|
|↑29||Peppone, Luke J., Martin C. Mahoney, K. Michael Cummings, Arthur M. Michalek, Mary E. Reid, Kirsten B. Moysich, and Andrew Hyland. “Colorectal cancer occurs earlier in those exposed to tobacco smoke: implications for screening.” Journal of cancer research and clinical oncology 134, no. 7 (2008): 743-751.|
|↑30||Alcohol Use and Cancer. American Cancer Society.|