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Your Lifestyle and Colon Cancer

Lowering Your Risk Factors


Updated March 14, 2012

There are two types of risk factors for developing colon cancer: those that decrease your risk and those that increase your risk. You can change the ones related to your lifestyle – what you eat and how you live. You cannot change any of the other elements that may predispose you to developing this disease, such as your age or race.

Uncontrollable Factors

Unfortunately, science has found many uncontrollable risk factors that may increase your risk of developing the disease or getting a recurrence of colon cancer. They include:
  • Age: Your risk climbs as your age increases.

  • Race: Colon cancer risk is higher for African-Americans and Eastern Europeans.

  • Family history: Your risk is increased if immediate family members have cancer.

  • Inflammatory bowel diseases: Having ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease increases your risk.

  • Genetics: Certain genetic disorders increase your risk of developing colon cancer.

What Is a Lifestyle (Controllable) Factor?

Each day, the things you do and are exposed to are considered lifestyle factors. Unlike the uncontrollable risk factors above, lifestyle risk factors are controlled mostly by you. They include:

  • Diet
  • Obesity
  • Physical activity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use
  • Self care

It's not speculation; it's a fact: Certain lifestyle factors are linked to an increased risk of developing colon cancer. A 2010 study in the Boston Medical Journal demonstrated that 23 percent of the participants who did not alter their risky lifestyle factors developed colon cancer. Although there is no guarantee that you will remain cancer-free, it is prudent to stack the deck in your favor, especially if you have a personal or family history of the disease.


You are in control of what you eat and drink. Your diet (good or bad) has a direct influence on your risk of developing colon cancer. Although scientific studies frequently fluctuate on what is good versus bad (ongoing fiber, wine and coffee debates), common sense and a healthy diet are never out of style.

Dietary factors that may increase your risk of colon cancer include:

  • High fats (especially from animals)
  • High energy (refined carbohydrates)
  • Frequently eating charred meats
  • Eating processed meats (bologna, hot dogs – meats not found in nature)
  • A diet devoid of plant foods

Dietary factors that may decrease your risk of colon cancer include:

  • A low-fat diet
  • Limiting animal meats and increasing plant proteins
  • Avoiding charred and processed meats
  • Eating fruits and vegetables regularly
  • A diet rich in calcium, vitamin D, folate and selenium (fiber is still under debate)


Obesity is defined differently than being "overweight," although both can increase your risk of developing colon cancer, as can the tendency to store fat around your midsection (apple shape). This lifestyle factor is dependent on two others – diet and physical activity. Fix one and you may be able to fix them all.

Talk to your doctor if you think you are obese or overweight. He or she can help you develop a safe diet and physical activity plan to reduce your weight. Every pound you shed helps decrease your risk of colon cancer, but only when the pounds are lost through a healthy plan (fad diets and yo-yo dieting may temporarily reduce your weight; however, only a permanent lifestyle change will keep it off).

Physical Activity

You may be relieved to hear that you don't necessarily need to buy an expensive gym membership or don a leotard to get the benefits of physical activity. The American Cancer Society suggests 150 minutes of activity a week for adults and an hour a day for children to decrease your cancer risk. That’s only about 21 minutes a day of exercise for adults.

It's human nature – you won't do something consistently if it's not enjoyable. Make exercise and physical activity a fun part of your day, not a punishment for eating those donuts for breakfast. Try gardening, taking a brisk walk or playing a sport. Avoid activities that keep you sedentary, such as watching television or other seated chores.

Smoking and Alcohol Use

Smoking increases your risk of many cancers, colon cancer included. Smokers have a two- to three-fold higher chance of developing colon polyps, which can turn cancerous if left alone. People who frequently consume more than two alcoholic drinks daily also have a much higher chance of developing colon cancer, possibly due to a depletion of folic acid. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting tobacco or alcohol.

Self Care

Despite much speculation, it's unclear why so many people do not keep their doctor's appointments and screen for colon cancer. Colon cancer is most treatable when it is detected and removed early. Especially as you age, your body requires routine doctor's visits and checkups to make sure that everything is running smoothly.

If you do not have a personal or family history of cancer (or genetic diseases that cause cancer), you should begin colon cancer screening exams by age 50 (or 40 if you are African-American). These tests include:

  • Colonoscopy every 10 years (or virtual colonoscopy every five years)
  • Double-contrast barium enema every five years
  • Fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test every year
  • Stool DNA testing

These guidelines vary based on personal history, family history and your risk of developing colon cancer. When in doubt, talk to your doctor. He or she will be able to help you set up a screening schedule.


American Cancer Society. (2006). American Cancer Society's Complete Guide to Colorectal Cancer. Clifton Fields, NE: American Cancer Society.

American Cancer Society. (2012). Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention. Accessed March 12, 2012.

Kirkegaard, H., Johnsen, N.F., Christensen, J., et al. (October 2010). Association of Adherence to Lifestyle Recommendations and Risk of Colorectal Cancer: A Prospective Danish Cohort Study. BMJ2010;341:c5504. Accessed March 12, 2012.

Lima, C., Gomes-da-Silva, M.H. (July 2005). Colorectal Cancer: Lifestyle and Dietary Factors. PubMed PMID: 16045124. Accessed March 11, 2012.

National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Risk Factors. What You Need to Know About Cancers of the Colon and Rectum. Accessed March 10, 2012.

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