Colon Cancer Prevention

Your initial step in colon cancer prevention is to talk with your doctor about when you should get screened—whether that's with a colonoscopy or an at-home stool-based test. Depending on your risk factors, like your age and whether you have a family history of colon cancer or polyps, your doctor will determine when screening should begin.

Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, limiting your consumption of red and processed meats, and avoiding excess alcohol intake are important ways to lower your risk of this disease.

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Screening

Screening tests for colon cancer prevention are done to identify any irregular growths in the colon before they turn cancerous. 

The majority of people fall into the average risk category for colon cancer prevention screening and are encouraged to begin testing at age 45. That said, symptoms or risk factors for colon cancer are usually indications for earlier screening. 

For the average-risk individual, visual screening tests can be used to identify colon polyps or cancer.

Commonly used screening tests may include:

  • Colonoscopy every 10 years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every five to 10 years. The limitation of flexible sigmoidoscopy is that it can only be used to visualize the left colon and cannot detect lesions on the right side of the colon.
  • Computed tomography colonoscopy (virtual colonoscopy) every five years 

There are also at-home stool tests designed to screen for colon cancer. These tests either detect trace amounts of blood or cancer cells that are shed in the stool.

They include:

These tests screen for colon cancer differently and can vary in their sensitivity. It's important that you don't wait to get your screening and that you ask your doctor which test would be best for you.

If you have irregular results with any screening test, you will need a colonoscopy to confirm those findings—and potentially remove any polyps or small growths, if needed.

Increased or High-Risk Screening

If you are at an increased or high risk of developing colon cancer, it is recommended that you have screening tests before age 45. You may need to have your screening more frequently than the recommendation for people who are at average risk.

According to the American Cancer Society, you are in the increased or high-risk category if you meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • You have a personal history of colon cancer or certain types of polyps.
  • You have a family history of colon cancer or certain types of polyps.
  • You have a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease).
  • You have a known family history or confirmed or suspected hereditary colon cancer syndrome like familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome (hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer or HNPCC).
  • You have a personal history of getting radiation to the abdomen or pelvic area to treat prior cancer.

The specific screening guidelines vary depending on the specific risk.

Genetic Counseling

People who carry genetic mutations linked to hereditary colon cancer are the most likely to develop the disease. If someone in your family has FAP or HNPCC, or if you're of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, you should talk to your doctor about genetic counseling.

Early screening may already have been recommended for you because of your hereditary risk, but genetic results may help further hone a prevention strategy.

Coverage

Your insurance coverage may cover some types of colon cancer screening tests, but not others. Coverage may also differ depending on your risk.

Be sure to talk with your doctor to see if your insurance covers your screening tests. If you're uninsured, you can meet with a social worker to learn how you can obtain coverage. 

If you are paying out of pocket, the cost can vary substantially, depending on the test. For example, at-home screening tests may cost between $50 to several hundred dollars, while colonoscopy can cost several thousand dollars. Genetic blood tests can cost between several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.

Colon cancer screening

Ariel Skelley / Getty Images 

Weight

An increase in abdominal fat (a larger waistline) has been linked with colon cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding weight gain, especially around your waist, may help lower your risk.

Obesity is associated with inflammation. Chronic inflammation within the body may cause DNA damage, which can subsequently lead to cancer. 

While the precise link between inflammation and cancer is complex and still being examined, reducing inflammation in your body through healthy lifestyle habits is a proactive step you can take to reduce your risk of cancer and improve your overall health.

Researchers have identified an inflammatory protein, called PAR2, in the abdominal fat cells of people who are overweight or obese.Researchers believe that high-fat/high-sugar diets cause changes to the cells of the immune system that trigger the production of this protein. This unique inflammatory response may contribute to weight gain by stimulating the production of certain fatty acids found in abdominal fat.

Diet

Diet can play a significant role in your colon cancer risk, as it can also impact the degree of inflammation in your body. While you can't change your age or your family medical history, you can make smart decisions about what is on your plate.

Pay Attention to the Fats You Eat

Eating healthy fats such as nut oils, flax oils, fish oils, olive oil, and canola oil can also reduce inflammation. Furthermore, be sure to limit your intake of red meat, which contains high amounts of saturated fat. You may also consider cutting out or reducing your consumption of full-fat dairy products such as butter, cream, ice cream, and cheese.

Additionally, clear the pantry of any processed foods made with trans fats or hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Excessive intake of the vegetable oils found in most junk foods can also turn up inflammation, even if the fats are not hydrogenated.

Cook Your Meat Properly

When you cook meat over high temperatures (think broiling, grilling, and frying), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are released into the food. These two compounds have known carcinogens and have been linked to an increased incidence of colon and rectal cancers. PAHs can also be found in cured or smoked foods, such as ham or bacon.

You don't have to toss your backyard grill, but it may be healthier to slow-cook foods at lower temperatures, stew, or slowly roast animal proteins.

If you do decide to grill your meat, be sure to use tongs to flip the meat rather than a fork. Piercing the meat causes fat and juices to drip onto the coals. This causes the formation of carcinogens that coat the meat when smoke rises back up from the grill.

Add Fiber to Your Diet

Emerging research suggests that fiber, especially from whole grains, may help lower your risk of colon cancer. 

Start by adding fiber to your diet first thing in the morning. Try oatmeal with fresh or frozen berries, nuts, and a sprinkling of flax seeds. Or, try a high-fiber breakfast cereal with at least 6 grams or more of fiber per serving.

In the afternoon, snack on fresh or dried fruit or nibble on veggies with hummus instead of chips or cookies. And, finally, end the day by adding an extra serving of vegetables to dinner and ensuring that your bread is 100% whole-grain.

Eat the Real Deal

You can find almost every micronutrient (think minerals, vitamins) available in a pill form nowadays. However, it's not just the micronutrients in healthy foods that matter. It’s the combination of nutrients, phytochemicals, and antioxidants—basically, the food as a whole helps fight cancer cells.

The safest and most economical way to get all of your antioxidants, phytochemicals, and nutrients is to eat the whole, natural, plant-based food, largely unchanged from when it was harvested. Wash vegetables and fruits thoroughly, and enjoy the skins that are edible as well (this is where the fiber is stashed). 

Lifestyle

It will likely come as no surprise to see these strategies on the list. Use their connection to colon cancer risk as fuel for a lifestyle change, if needed.

Exercise Regularly

Regular physical activity can reduce inflammation, according to a 2017 study from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. All it takes is 20 minutes of exercise four to five times per week, and any form of moderate to intense activity will do (for example, walking briskly, running, swimming, or biking).

That said, vigorous exercise may lower your risk of colon cancer even more than moderate exercise. So if you are already working out regularly, consider upping the intensity and/or frequency of your sessions (under the guidance of your personal physician). 

Quit Smoking, Reduce Alcohol

Research suggests that stopping smoking and limiting alcohol consumption can lower your risk of developing colon cancer.

  • Smoking tobacco or other substances exposes the body to many chemicals that can damage DNA. This type of damage can lead to many types of cancer.
  • Heavy alcohol use can deplete the amount of folate (one of the B vitamins) that you absorb from healthy foods. Folate deficiency has been linked to an increased incidence of colon cancer.

Natural Remedies

Natural remedies and alternative therapies don't play a significant role in colon cancer prevention.

Vitamin D

High blood levels of vitamin D may be linked to a lower risk of colon cancer, according to a 2018 study. Analyzing data on 5,706 people with colorectal cancer and 7,107 healthy individuals, researchers showed that higher circulating levels of vitamin D were associated with a substantially lower risk of colon cancer in women. However, no link was found in men.

Folate

Making sure you consume enough folate (a B vitamin found in foods like spinach, asparagus, and fortified cereals) may help lower your risk of colon cancer. However, some studies have suggested that folate might help existing tumors grow and more research is needed.

Quercetin

In lab tests on cell cultures, scientists have demonstrated that quercetin may help stall the growth of colon cancer. What's more, a 2010 population-based study of 672 people found that dietary intake of quercetin may be linked with reduced risk of colon cancer.

An antioxidant available in supplement form, quercetin is naturally found in foods like apples, onions, and berries.

Tea

Drinking tea is known to have certain health benefits. In the lab, white tea has been shown to inhibit the growth of HT-29 cells, which are a human colorectal adenocarcinoma cell line. Green tea has also been found to fight colon cancer in animal-based research and test-tube studies. However, the available scientific data are insufficient to conclude that any type of tea may prevent colon cancer in humans.

Preventive Medications

Some studies suggest that people who regularly use aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have a lower risk of colon cancer. The truth is, the jury is still out.

Since NSAIDs can cause serious side effects (including bleeding from stomach irritation), it's important to consult your physician before taking these drugs on a regular basis. In fact, the American Cancer Society notes that "most experts don’t recommend taking NSAIDs just to lower colorectal cancer risk if you are someone at average risk."

While some studies have suggested that statin—drugs commonly used to treat high LDL cholesterol levels, such as Lipitor (atorvastatin) and Crestor (rosuvastatin)—may reduce the risk for developing colon cancer, others have not supported this idea.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does eating fiber help prevent colon cancer?

The idea that increasing dietary fiber lowers the risk of colon cancer is somewhat controversial, as studies looking at the connection between the two have had conflicting results.That said, fiber may protect against colon cancer by diluting carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) in waste, reducing the amount of time carcinogens are in the bowels, and increasing fermentation of bacteria in the fiber that may help stop carcinogens from forming.

What foods are most likely to increase the risk of colon cancer?

The foods most directly linked to the risk of colon cancer are:

  • Red meat
  • Processed meats (hot dogs, bacon, etc.)
  • Foods with a high sugar content
  • Alcohol

Cooking method matters as well. Foods cooked at a very high temperature—for example, grilled over blazing coals—also are associated with increased colon cancer risk.

How can I prevent colon cancer from coming back?

If you've already had colon cancer, follow your oncologist's instructions regarding your diet, activity level, and other factors that may affect your overall health. Keep all follow-up appointments, and be on the lookout for any signs of a relapse. Let your doctor know immediately if you experience symptoms similar to the ones you had when you were first diagnosed, or the following:

  • New or unusual pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained bruising or bleeding
  • A rash or allergic reaction
  • Chills or fever
  • Persistent headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Blood in your urine or stools
  • Swelling or lumps
  • Digestive issues (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
  • A chronic cough
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Article Sources
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