Written by Elizabeth Millard

You might not think much about your colon health, but it’s smart to give it some attention. Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S., with about 104,000 new cases each year, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).[1]

Screenings can catch abnormal growths, called polyps, in your colon or rectum early, before they become cancerous or when they’re still highly treatable. In fact, increased screening in adults over age 65 has been helpful for reducing the overall cancer rate, thanks to an ACS guideline update in 2018.[1]

However, that decline doesn’t apply to every age group. Colon cancer among adults age 20 to 49 continues to climb by about 2% a year, the ACS notes, in part because being sedentary, smoking, and eating unhealthy foods can significantly increase the risk.[1]

But good news: Colon cancer is often treatable if caught at an early stage, and prevention plays a major role as well since changing up your habits could lower your risk. Here are some recommended changes you can make today to prevent colon cancer in the future.[2]

Related article: Colon Cancer Rates are Rising Among Young People: Here's What to Know


Eat More Fiber


This is standard advice, and it’s worth repeating for good reason, says Jeffrey Nelson, M.D., surgical director at the Center for Inflammatory Bowel and Colorectal Diseases at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.[3]

“The lack of fiber in the Western diet contributes to many colorectal and digestive problems,” Dr. Nelson says. “Everything from hemorrhoids to irritable bowel syndrome can be alleviated, to some extent, by increasing dietary fiber.”[3]

Most people need to consume about 35 grams of fiber a day, Dr. Nelson says, and many of us fall far short of that goal. But you don’t have to track every gram. To boost your intake, just reach for more good food sources of fiber:[4] Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds are all options. In general, unprocessed foods have more fiber.[1]

Check your colon health from home now.


Stay Active


Although diet is important, so is regular exercise, says Soma Mandal, M.D., an internist with Summit Medical Group in New Jersey. Physical activity can play an enormous role in improving colon health, she says, and being more active can improve other aspects of your health as well, like immunity and sleep.[5]

In an analysis of 21 studies, researchers found that the colon cancer risk of the most active people was 27 percent lower than that of the least active folks. This could be related to weight maintenance, another crucial part of colon health.[6] Being overweight or obese increases the risk of colon cancer, especially in men, Dr. Mandal says. The combination of a high-fiber diet and more activity can help with weight loss, she suggests.

How much activity should you aim for? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. It’s best to spread that activity throughout the week; move every day if you can.[7,12, 13]

Check your colon health from home now.


Ease Up on Alcohol and Don’t Smoke


The more you drink, the higher your colon cancer risk, Dr. Mandal says. One study noted that drinking can cause polyps to form more easily, and the more of those you have, the greater your chance of one or more of them becoming precancerous or cancerous. Also, the way your body metabolizes alcohol could promote carcinogenic effects in the colon, the study suggests.[5,8]

Alcohol also increases your risk of other cancers, including those of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and liver, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions.[9] Its guidelines set the maximum for both cancer prevention and overall good health at one drink a day for women and two drinks for men. Keep in mind that what constitutes “one standard drink” (a 12-ounce beer or 5 ounces of wine) may be less than you think.[10,11]

As for cigarettes, quitting is much better than moderation, Dr. Mandal says. “Not surprisingly, long-term smoking increases the risk of colon cancer and other cancers,” she says. “Quitting smoking is strongly recommended for reducing the risk of developing cancer.”[5]

Screen for colon cancer from home now.


Stay on Top of Screenings


As of 2020, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends getting your first colorectal screening at age 45 (versus 50 as it was previously).[14] You’ll want to get screened sooner if a close relative has had colorectal cancer, or if you have an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Follow up with tests at regular intervals until you’re 75; the frequency will depend on the kind of screening and your risk factors.

If you’re in a low-risk category, you can screen with an at-home test that checks a stool sample for blood, which may indicate the presence of cancerous or precancerous growths in the colon. A positive result should prompt a call to your health care provider, and you’ll likely need a colonoscopy as a follow-up. (People who are at higher risk may be advised to get a colonoscopy from the start, so a doctor can do a visual exam of the colon and rectum.)

Here are suggested screening timelines:[15]

  • At-home tests: every year
  • Colonoscopy: every 10 years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy: every five years

Check your colon health from home now.


Enjoy the Healthy Ripple Effect


Staying aware of colorectal health, adopting good habits, and getting screenings can do more than prevent colon cancer — these changes can create a positive ripple effect across all aspects of your health, says Mandal.

For example, exercising, ditching cigarettes, and focusing on nutrition can all be beneficial for your immunity, heart and lung health, energy levels, and sleep quality, just to name a few. Sticking with healthy habits — including preventive screenings — can go a long way toward keeping you and your colon happy and healthy long into the future.

Related article: Healthy Living and Colon Cancer Risk: Lifestyle Factors That Can Help Reduce Colon Cancer Risk


References


  1. Cancer.org
    https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/about/key-statistics.html
  2. Cancer.org
    https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/detection.html
  3. Dr. Jeffrey Nelson
  4. Mayo Clinic
    https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/high-fiber-foods/art-20050948
  5. Dr. Soma Mandal
  6. NCBI National Center for Biotechnology Information
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22914790/
  7. Health.gov
    https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf
  8. NCBI National Center for Biotechnology Information
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5836070/
  9. Cancer.org
    https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/about/key-statistics.html
  10. CDC
    https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/alcohol/index.htm
  11. NIH National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
    https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink#:~:text=In the United States%2C one,which is about 40%25 alcohol
  12. CDC
    https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm
    https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink#:~:text=In the United States%2C one,which is about 40%25 alcohol
  13. CDC
    https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm
  14. Health.gov
    https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf
  15. US Preventive Services Task Force
    https://uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/draft-recommendation/colorectal-cancer-screening3
  16. Cancer.org
    https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/acs-recommendations.html