Two key steps that may lower your risk of colorectal cancer

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Learn two important steps you can take to help reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer (excluding skin cancers) among both men and women in the United States. But you may be able to reduce your risk of developing the disease with two key tools: regular screenings and a healthy diet.

Regular screenings

More than 140,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Greater awareness of and access to screening tools have helped improve the colorectal cancer survival rate over the past 30 years. There are now more than 1.3 million survivors of the disease in the United States. Since the early 1990s, the rates of new cases and deaths has steadily decreased.

Yet only 65 percent of adults follow recommended colorectal cancer screening guidelines to get one of several tests every 5-10 years after they turn 45. “Colorectal cancer is highly preventable with regular screenings,” says Pankaj Vashi, MD, AGAF, FASPEN, Vice Chief of Staff at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Chicago. “With a colonoscopy, you may actually identify polyps that are benign growths but that, with time, may turn into cancer.”

Screening tests are especially important because colorectal cancer may spread in the early stages without noticeable symptoms. By the time signs do emerge, the disease may be at an advanced stage. That’s why Dr. Vashi urges adults aged 45 and older to pay attention to their bodies and watch for certain symptoms.

Those with a family history of colorectal cancer or other risk factors that cause colon cancer should talk to their doctors about getting screened earlier or more often. Stool tests and blood tests may also be used to detect damaged DNA or microscopic levels of blood in the stool, which are among the first signs of colorectal cancer.

“The most important take-home message is not to ignore any symptoms related to the disease that persist for more than two weeks, especially rectal bleeding,” Dr. Vashi says. “Even if you think it’s a hemorrhoid, get yourself checked out for colorectal disease. No rectal bleeding should be ignored.”

Other symptoms of colorectal cancer include:

  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal bloating, cramps or discomfort
  • A feeling that the bowel doesn't empty completely
  • Stools that are thinner than normal
  • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Anemia
  • Jaundice
  • Weakness or fatigue

Learn more about diagnostic tools used to detect colorectal cancer. 

Proper nutrition

In addition to getting regular screenings and paying attention to persistent symptoms, proper nutrition may help protect your body from many types of cancer, especially cancer of the colon and/or rectum. Colorectal cancer starts in the inner lining of the colon and/or rectum, which are located in the lower portion of the digestive track. Both organs play critical roles in digesting food. The colon, which is the first five feet of the large intestine, absorbs food and water and stores waste. That waste is then dispensed from the body by the rectum, comprising the last several inches of the large intestine. The close relationship between food and the organs that process it reinforces why diet plays such an important role in colorectal cancer risk.

Consuming red or processed meats, for example, or other foods high in saturated fat, has been shown to increase the average person’s chances of developing colorectal cancer. On the other hand, colorful fruits and vegetables and fresh fish may help lower your risk of several diseases and conditions, including cancer and heart disease. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and other leafy greens are a good source of fiber, which binds with cholesterol, absorbs fat and removes other unhealthy byproducts from the body, says Sadie Dahlk, RD, LDN, CNSC, CSO, Manager of Nutrition and Clinical Oncology Dietitian at CTCA® Chicago.

To maintain a healthy diet, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends that you:

  • Try to fill two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.
  • Limit red meat like beef, pork and lamb and avoid processed meats like ham, bacon and hot dogs.
  • Limit daily alcohol intake to two drinks for men and one for women.
  • Avoid sugary drinks.
  • Limit salty foods.
  • Get your vitamins and minerals from food rather than supplements.
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight and BMI.

Healthy foods aren’t just important in preventing colorectal cancer. For those already diagnosed with the disease, a well-balanced meal plan developed by a dietitian and other members of a cancer care team may help the patient stay strong throughout treatment. Colorectal cancer limits the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and digest food, often leading to malnutrition. Treatment may also cause additional side effects, like weight loss, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea and/or constipation. A balanced nutritional regimen may help the patient better tolerate treatment, prevent malnutrition and improve quality of life.

“Aside from diet, you can do a lot to reduce your colorectal cancer risk just by staying active and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle,” Dahlk says, recommending that those who can get in at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week, or 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week.

Get easy recipes for healthy entrees, side dishes and desserts.