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5 actions that help prevent colorectal cancer

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Colorectal cancer (often called colon cancer, for short) is more common and more deadly than you might realize. It’s the fourth most common cancer in the United States, not counting skin cancers. And more than 50,000 people die from colorectal cancer each year.

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.

Risk factor facts

  • Risk by gender. Men have a one in 23 risk of developing colorectal cancer in their lifetime. For women, it’s one in 26.
  • Black Americans are about 20 percent more likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer, and about 40 percent more likely to die from the disease, compared to other race/ethnic groups.
  • 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 45. 
  • People who are 45 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. Colorectal cancer deaths could be reduced by about 60 percent if all Americans got their recommended screenings.

5 ways to lower your risk

  1. Get your recommended screenings. Get a colonoscopy starting at age 45 (and then every five years) or a high-sensitivity fecal immunochemical test (FIT) yearly. If you are high risk, screening should start before age 45 and occur more frequently. Talk with your doctor or healthcare team about the best screening options and frequency for you. Be sure to check your health insurance company for information about how colonoscopy alternatives are covered by your health plan.
  2. 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. Find something you enjoy and can stick with.
  3. Eat plenty of fiber. Make three quarters of your plate plant based. Choosing whole 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 for men 65 and younger. One drink is 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces distilled liquor.

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