When it comes to colon and rectal (colorectal) cancer, research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop the disease. While some factors like diet and lifestyle choices can be controlled, others, such as age and family history cannot.
In all cases, understanding the various factors that can increase your personal risk for colorectal cancer can help you make more informed lifestyle and screening choices.
Colorectal cancer risk factors that can be controlled include:
- Diet. Eating red meat (beef, pork, lamb, or liver) and processed meats (luncheon meats; hot dogs) in excess can increase your risk for colorectal cancer. However, the risk can be lowered by adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain fibers to your diet while limiting how often you eat red or processed meats each week.
- Exercise. Lack of physical activity can put you at an increased risk.
- Weight. Being overweight or obese, especially when most of the weight is carried in your midsection, can raise the risk of colorectal cancer in both men and women.
- Tobacco use. While smoking is a common cause of lung cancer, it has also been linked to other cancers, including colon cancer.
- Alcohol use. Colorectal cancer has been linked to heavy alcohol consumption. The risk can be decreased by limiting alcohol use to 1 to 2 drinks per day.
Colorectal cancer risk factors that cannot be controlled include:
- Family history. Sometimes, cancers “run in the family” due to various factors including inherited genes, shared environmental factors, or a combination of both. If you have a family history of adenomatous polyps or colorectal cancer in a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, child), talk with your doctor. Genetic testing or getting screened at an earlier age might be recommended.
- Personal medical history. People with medical conditions such as adenomatous polyps (adenomas) and inflammatory bowel disease (including ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease) are at an increased risk for colorectal cancer.
- Age. Colon and rectal cancers are much more common among men and women age 50 and older than in young adults.
- Race/Ethnicity. People of African American descent and Jews of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) are more likely to develop colorectal cancer than people of other races.
- Diabetes. Patients with type 2 diabetes are at an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. Additionally, they tend to have poorer outcomes of colorectal cancer treatment.
Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely develop colon or rectal cancer. Likewise, not having risk factors does not mean you will not get it.
During your annual checkup, talk with your doctor about when colorectal cancer screening should begin based on your risk factors. If you are at least 50 years of age and have no known risk factors, talk with your doctor about regular screening for colon cancer.