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What Are the Top Nine Colon Cancer Risk Factors?

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Updated March 07, 2011

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What Are the Top Nine Colon Cancer Risk Factors?

Exercise is important for cancer survivors during and after treatment.

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Question: What Are the Top Nine Colon Cancer Risk Factors?

What are the top nine colon cancer risk factors?

Answer:

Many of the top nine colon cancer risk factors are things you can change. Lower colon cancer risk is within your control.

Top Nine Colon Cancer Risk Factors

  1. Not being screened for colon cancer. Many people skip out on colon cancer screening because they don't know what to expect or they think the process will be embarrassing. In truth, there's nothing embarrassing about taking control of your health. And lack of screening is a major risk factor for being diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. When you are screened, your doctor can catch and remove growths in your colon, called polyps or adenomas, before they become cancer. In this way, screening can prevent colon cancer, or it can catch it early, when it's most treatable.


  2. Ignoring symptoms that may signal a colon problem. Symptoms such as changes in your bowel habits, diarrhea or constipation, thin stools, or blood in the stools can make a potentially easy-to-treat situation worse. Symptoms are your body's way of saying "pay attention." If you fail to pay attention, you are putting yourself at higher risk of being diagnosed with colon cancer. If you have symptoms that signal a problem with your colon, talk to your doctor right away.


  3. Being fatalistic. When it comes to preventing colon cancer, people often focus on things they can't change, such as age and family medical history, rather than the dozens of things they can. No matter your current state of health, it's likely you can improve it with a few small changes. It's never too late to lower your risk. In fact, studies suggest that even after being diagnosed with colon cancer, factors that are within our control, including diet and exercise, may limit the chances of cancer coming back (recurrence).


  4. Ignoring personal or family health history. It's important to make positive health changes to reduce colon cancer risk (see number 2), but don't forget about family history. For people who have a genetic or family syndrome that increases colon cancer risk, it's vital to address the issue. The same is true for personal medical history. If you've had colon polyps in the past, you are at higher-than-average risk of getting them again. If untreated, some polyps can develop into colon cancer. If either of these situations describes you, work with your doctor to develop a plan for earlier and more frequent colon cancer screening. Also ask whether you need medication to help reduce colon cancer risk.


  5. Being a couch potato. Regular physical activity is one of the best ways to ward off colon cancer. In fact, exercise can reduce colon cancer risk by 25%. If you've already had colon cancer, you can benefit from moving your body, too! Cancer survivors who exercise feel better, have fewer symptoms, and have better quality of life. Plus, exercising after colon cancer diagnosis appears to reduce the risk of recurrence by up to 53%!


  6. Succumbing to weight "creep." A few pounds here, a few pounds there, and sooner or later, you're overweight, or even obese. At this point, your risk of colon cancer may be up to 50% higher than that of someone at a healthy weight. Obesity contributes to diabetes too, and people with diabetes have higher risk of colon cancer than people without the disease. Plus, health experts now believe that being obese turns up inflammation in the body, and more inflammation leads to a higher risk of colon cancer recurrence after being treated for the disease.


  7. Not getting your zzzz's. Falling asleep at your desk or nodding off during an important meeting are only part of the downside to not getting enough sleep. Add increased colon cancer risk to the list. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic studied more than 1,200 people to look at the connection between sleep habits and colon cancer risk. Even after adjusting for other major colon cancer risk factors, including family history of the disease, smoking habits and obesity, the relationship between less sleep and higher colon cancer risk remained. People who averaged six or fewer hours of sleep per night were 50% more likely to develop precancerious growths, called polyps, in the colon.


  8. Smoking. Smoking can damage more than just lungs. It damages the colon, too. This damage may spur the growth of colon cancer. In one study, researchers found that people who smoke have twice the risk of being diagnosed with colon adenomas as non-smokers. Adenomas are growths in the colon that, if not removed during colon cancer screening, can develop into cancer. Quitting tobacco is hard, but you can succeed. Attending a quit-smoking support group or chat room (online), using nicotine replacement products, and trying prescription medications, if appropriate (ask your doctor), all increase the chances of successfully quitting tobacco.


  9. Focusing on fiber alone. Fiber is good for digestive health, but keep in mind that fiber alone may not give you the colon cancer protection you're seeking. It's a myth that taking fiber supplements gives you a free pass to eat anything you want. Most of the research suggests that fiber is important for reducing colon cancer risk, but only when it comes from fiber-rich foods. This includes whole grains, vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, and seeds. When you get fiber from these healthy foods, you also get the vitamins, minerals, and other plant nutrients that play a role in reducing colon cancer risk. If you take a fiber supplement to avoid constipation, that's fine. Just don't assume that fiber alone is all you need in terms of dietary colon cancer protection. Focus on fiber-rich foods and you'll be much healthier for it.


In the end, good health is something we all can work toward. There are no guarantees in life, but by addressing these top nine colon cancer risk factors, you'll go a long way toward keeping your colon, and your whole body, healthy for the long-term.

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