Colorectal Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

0316_Colorectal Cancer_web imageWhen it comes to colorectal cancer, the numbers speak for themselves:

  • It's the second leading cause of cancer in the United States.
  • There are 136,000 new cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed each year.
  • You have a one in 20 risk of developing colorectal cancer in your lifetime.
  • About 25 percent more men than women get colon cancer, and about 20 percent more African Americans than Whites.

The good news is that colorectal cancer is largely preventable. It may be uncomfortable for some people to talk about it, but knowing your risk and taking preventive action could save your life.

Five Facts about Colorectal Cancer Risk 

  • It can run in the family. If you have a family history of colon cancer, you may be at greater risk. Encourage your family members-men and women-to get their screenings, starting at age 50. Talk with your doctor about when screening is recommended for you.
  • People age 50 and older aren't the only ones at risk. Diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's disease, or ulcerative colitis can increase your risk for colon cancer. If you have one of these diseases, talk with your doctor about your risk and cancer prevention strategies.
  • It usually starts with a polyp. Polyps are small growths on the inside surface of your colon. Many of these polyps can be noncancerous, but some types of polyps are precursors to cancer. In fact, nearly all colon and rectal cancers start from polyps.
  • Warning signs are limited. Signs or symptoms can be mild or nonexistent in the early stages of colorectal cancer. Some symptoms you may experience include changes in bowel movements, dark blood in the stool, abdominal discomfort, being abnormally tired, loss of appetite, and weight loss.
  • Screenings can save lives. More than 50,000 people die from colorectal cancer each year. This number could be reduced by about 60 percent if Americans got their recommended screenings. About 28 million Americans are not up-to-date with their colorectal cancer screening.

Five Ways to Help Prevent Colorectal Cancer

  • Get your recommended screenings. We generally recommend you get a colonoscopy starting at age 50 (and ever ten years thereafter) or a high-sensitivity fecal occult blood test (FOBT) once per year. Talk with your doctor or health care team about how often you should get screened. Alternative screening options are available. Talk to your doctor to choose the right screenings for you. Be sure to check your health insurance plan for information about how alternatives to colonoscopies are covered by your health plan.
  • Get moving. Regular physical activity in any form decreases risk of colorectal cancer. Be physically active at least 30 minutes every day. If you're not used to that much activity, start where you are at and build from there. Anything is better than nothing, and it can happen in short, 10-minute increments or all at once-it's the total time that matters. It's also important is to find something you enjoy and can stick with.
  • Eat plenty of fiber. Make three quarters of your plate plant-based. Choosing foods like oats, beans, lentils, and a variety of fruits and vegetables will provide plenty of fiber. Beyond being nourishing, plant-based foods help in maintaining a healthy weight, which is important in reducing risk of several cancers, including colorectal cancer.
  • Limit red meats and avoid processed meats. Eating red and processed meat increases risk of colorectal cancer. Red meats commonly eaten include beef, veal, pork, and lamb. Processed meats, such as hot dogs, ham, sausage, corned beef, and jerky, have been salted, cured, or otherwise processed to enhance the flavor or improve preservation. Aim to eat less than 18 ounces of red meat a week. Choose white meats like turkey, chicken, or fish more often.
  • Avoid or limit alcohol. If you drink, do so in moderation. That means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than 65, and up to two drinks a day men 65 and younger. One drink is 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces distilled liquor.

Sources: WebMD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC), American Institute for Cancer Research and National Cancer Institute,

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Last updated 11/15/2018