If you’re trying to prevent colon cancer, start with lifestyle, diet changes

There is strong evidence eating whole grains, dietary fiber and dairy products can help prevent colon cancer. Staying physically active also can reduce your risk for the disease

The old saying goes, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” but the effects of a healthy diet and lifestyle go way beyond a yearly trip to the doctor’s office and can help prevent colon cancer.

Diet, exercise and lifestyle have been shown to help reduce the risk for several diseases, including colon cancer or colorectal cancer (CRC).

Data from the World Cancer Research Fund International shows there is strong evidence eating whole grains, dietary fiber and dairy products decreases a person’s risk for colorectal cancer. Staying physically active also can reduce your risk for the disease.

On the other hand, eating red and processed meats, drinking alcohol and being overweight or obese increase a person’s risk for colon cancer.

Colon cancer screenings

The American Cancer Society recommends anyone at average risk for colorectal cancer start regular screenings at age 45. Options range from at-home tests to colonoscopy.

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“If there’s a cancer that can be largely preventable, we should be doing everything we can to prevent it from happening in the first place, because really the best cancer to cure is the one that never happens,” said Michael F. Driscoll, M.D., gastrointestinal medical oncologist at Norton Cancer Institute. “We know that colorectal cancer is greater than 90% preventable, and often if people get their appropriate screenings on time, these maybe get found in the polyp stage before they progress on to an actual cancer.”

Along with diet and exercise, there are other factors that affect a person’s risk for colon cancer.

According to the World Cancer Research Fund International, smoking two packs of cigarettes per day increases risk for colon cancer by roughly 40% and nearly doubles the risk for death from colon cancer. Inflammatory bowel diseases, like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, also increase the risk for colon cancer.

More than one half of all colon cancer cases and deaths can be attributed to modifiable risk factors, like smoking, unhealthy diets, high alcohol consumption, physical inactivity and body weight.

“If people can stop smoking, we know that eliminates a very strong risk factor for developing colorectal cancer,“ Dr. Driscoll said. “Getting rid of those risks in your life, and then modifying your diet, getting more exercise, are sort of low-hanging fruit things that we can do to prevent, not only the risk for colorectal cancers, but other cancers as well.” 

According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third most-commonly diagnosed cancer and the third-most-common cause of cancer-related death in both men and women in the United States. Colon cancer is also the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men younger than 50 years old.

“About 140,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer ever year, and for a cancer that is over 90% preventable in the first place, people need to know their family history, need to be proactive at trying to decrease their risk and then get their screening colonoscopies on time,” Dr. Driscoll said.

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