More than 130,000 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2020 — and that’s just in the United States. But here’s the kicker: Colorectal cancer is preventable.
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“You can’t prevent breast, lung or brain cancer in the same way,” says colorectal surgeon James Church, MD. “You can’t take precancerous polyps off any of those organs.”
But there’s more to colorectal cancer prevention than the dreaded pre-colonoscopy bowel prep. Dr. Church gives six ways you can lower your colorectal cancer risk — and keep your colon and rectum firing on all cylinders, too.
What is colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer is a malignant tumor of the lining of the large intestine. It is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. But it’s also highly treatable when doctors find it early.
How to prevent colorectal cancer
1. Get regular screenings
Colonoscopy save lives, says Dr. Church. Starting at age 50, everyone should get regular screenings (start at age 45 if you’re black). That’s when colorectal cancer risk starts increasing.
When you’re high-risk: If colorectal cancer or precancerous polyps run in your family, talk to your doctor about starting screenings earlier than average. Colonoscopy math works like this: Take the age of the youngest affected relative when they were diagnosed with polyps or cancer. Subtract 10 years from that age. That’s when you should start having colonoscopies and continue them every five years. So if your father had polyps at 50, you would begin colonoscopies at age 40.
Benefits of colonoscopy: “Every colon and rectal cancer arises from a precancerous polyp or other precancerous lesion, and it takes 10 years on average for a benign polyp to become cancerous,” explains Dr. Church. “Colonoscopy allows doctors to find and remove colon polyps before they’re a problem.”
Regular colonoscopies prevent the majority of colorectal cancers. And, in fact, the rate of colorectal cancer diagnosed in patients over the age of 50 is decreasing in this country. This decrease is largely due to screening and prevention by polypectomy. But due to misinformation (or a strong gag reflex), up to 70% of those most at risk — people aged 50 to 75 — don’t have a colonoscopy. And it’s not a lack of awareness. Research shows that nearly all unscreened people know they should get a colonoscopy but still don’t.
“Sadly, every patient who walks into my office with cancer had a polyp that could have been taken off,” Dr. Church says. “They missed the boat for some reason: They were too scared, their family doctor didn’t recommend it, their insurance company wouldn’t pay for it, or they had a colonoscopy, and their doctor didn’t see the polyp.”
A better colonoscopy experience: Colonoscopies have undergone a mini-makeover in recent years, with researchers working hard to improve the patient experience:
- Prep “light”: Half-gallon options and split doses (half the night before/half in the morning) are now available, making the prep more bearable.
- Sweet dreams: While people may fear pain or inadequate sedation, 99% of patients are sedated enough (conscious sedation or twilight sleep) to be comfortable during their colonoscopy. Most don’t even remember it.
- Fast, but not furious: They last a half hour, and then you’re done: 10 to 12 minutes to get the scope in comfortably and 12 minutes or so to take it out. That’s shorter than an episode of your favorite television drama. It takes longer if doctors need to remove polyps, depending on the number and the size of them.
- Safety first: Colonoscopies are safe. When performed by specially trained professionals, the risk of perforation and bleeding is very low. “Get an experienced colonoscopist. Somebody who knows how to recognize polyps and remove them in the safest way possible,” Dr. Church recommends.
Now that you’ve scheduled your colonoscopy appointment, what else can you do for colon health?
2. You are what you eat
To your honey-do list, add eating more fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, nuts and beans. They are linked to a lower risk of some cancers and can help you have healthy bowel function. Limit red meat and high-fat or processed foods, which can increase your colon cancer risk.
3. Be a weight watcher
Check your body mass index (BMI) regularly. Your risk of colon cancer increases if you’re overweight or obese. A BMI of 25 or higher can put you in the danger zone.
4. Sweat more
Do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week. This will help you maintain a healthy weight and stay stress-free, which can decrease cancer risk. Examples of moderate-intensity exercise for a healthy adult include a brisk walk, gardening or doubles tennis.
5. Limit liquor
Keep an eye on your alcohol consumption, which is a general cancer risk factor. The recommended limits are one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
6. Be a quitter
On top of many other health risks, smoking increases your risk of colon cancer, so take steps to quit right away.