Is Colorectal Cancer Preventable?

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According to American Cancer Society, cancer of the rectum or colon is one of two cancers that can actually be prevented and treated through early detection via screening (cervical cancer being the other one!). To help lower your risk be sure to maintain a healthy weight, limit sedentary behavior, and cut back on alcohol, smoking, red meats and processed meats.

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer or cancer of the rectum or colon is expected to cause around 49,190 deaths in 2016.1 What is heartening though is that deaths due to colorectal cancer have dropped considerably over the last couple of decades and it is, in fact, one cancer that is “preventable, beatable, and treatable” –Getting yourself screened and managing your lifestyle better can help you steer clear of colorectal cancer, which incidentally is one of the two cancers that can actually be prevented through screening (cervical cancer being the other one).2 Here are the steps you should take!

Screen And Save

Colorectal cancer usually starts with a polyp, a small growth on the lining of the rectum or colon. This polyp is not yet malignant and can be easily removed once detected. Screening can help to detect these precancerous growths and avert the possibility of colorectal cancer.

Wondering who should get regular check-ups? While gender does not seem to be a risk factor (men and women can both get colon cancer), age certainly is. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that you get screened regularly if you’re 50 years or older.3 A family history of polyps, uterine cancer, colon cancer, and inflammatory bowel disease puts you at greater risk, which means you should consider regular screening.

So what does screening involve? Four tests are used for this: fecal occult blood test, barium enema, sigmoidoscopy, and colonoscopy.

  • Blood in the stool can be indicative of polyps or cancer. During a fecal occult blood test, stool is checked under a microscope for blood.
  • During a barium enema, barium is placed into the rectum and passed through the gastrointestinal tract. X-rays are then taken of the gastrointestinal tract and checked for abnormalities.
  • During both a sigmoidoscopy and a colonoscopy, a thin tube with a lens is inserted into the anus to check for abnormalities. Polyps or tissue samples can also be removed and checked for cancer.4

Keep Tabs On Lifestyle Factors

Interestingly, colorectal cancer was fairly uncommon in the States before the 20th century, but there’s been a sharp increase – in tandem with economic development – in the last hundred years. Moreover, across the world, industrialized countries continue to see the majority of colorectal cancers, though rates are picking up in less developed countries too as they adopt a more Western lifestyle.5 This points to the role of environmental and lifestyle factors in increasing the risk for colorectal cancer.

The following aspects can have an impact on your risk for colorectal cancer.


Obesity, which is a risk factor for many diseases, has an uneasy link to colon cancer too.6 Check your body mass index (BMI) to ensure that you are at a healthy weight. Eating healthy and exercising can also keep those pounds at bay.7


  • Eating less processed or cured meat (ham, sausages, and bacon) and less red meat (beef, venison, and pork) can help you avoid colorectal cancer. If you eat more than 90 g of processed and red meat a day, try and bring it down to 70g.8 How you cook your meat also seems to have an impact on the risk for colorectal cancer – cooking at high temperatures for a long time can up your dietary risks.9
  • A good fiber intake moves wastes through the digestive tract faster and prevents toxic wastes from staying in the digestive system. Up your fiber quotient with foods like whole-grain cereals, sprouts, beans, and fresh fruits and vegetables.10 It is also a good idea to have less refined carbohydrates.11
  • The role of calcium and vitamin D in the prevention of colon cancer has been a focus of research. According to a World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) review, calcium may have a protective effect against cancer. At least 1000 mg/day of calcium a day is optimal. Natural sources of calcium include dairy products such as milk. Vitamin D is best had from its natural source – sunlight. Try soaking in the early morning sun for about 10–15 minutes each day. Vitamin D naturally and through supplementation is considered a low-cost means of reducing cancer incidence and mortality.12
  • Eat foods rich in antioxidants which fight off free radicals and prevent cell and tissue damage. Antioxidants like carotene and beta-carotene are useful in fighting free radicals. Foods rich in these antioxidants include red, yellow, orange, and green veggies. Green tea is also rich in antioxidants.
  • Folic acid is an established cancer fighter. It enables new cell and tissue formation and keeps red blood cells active and healthy. While folic acid supplements are widely available, increase your intake through natural sources like spinach, sprouts, and citrus fruits.13
  • Berries are also pitched as effective cancer fighters because of a group of phytochemicals called polyphenols. In a Medical College of Wisconsin study, berries like black raspberries and strawberries were found to inhibit colon cancer by 80% in rats. While their anti-cancer properties in humans are being studied further, the researchers have endorsed their positive role in cancer prevention.14


Exercise is crucial for preventing any type of cancer. A sedentary lifestyle and long sitting habits add to the risks of colorectal cancer. So get up and take that walk! Experts recommend about two and half hours of moderate aerobic exercise (say fast walking or cycling) every week.15


Smoking is a known risk factor for various cancers and colorectal cancer is no exception. Nicotine is known to have links to stomach and colorectal cancers16 and long-term smokers especially are at greater risk.17 So if you smoke, it’s time to stop!


Alcohol use has been linked to a higher risk of cancers of the rectum and colon.18 Drinking also depletes folic acid, which is crucial in preventing cancers. It is advisable not to have more than 14 units (a unit of alcohol is the amount of pure alcohol contained in an alcoholic beverage; this is usually mentioned on the bottle or can) of alcohol per week. And if you have just about 14 units a week, space it out over three days or more.19

References   [ + ]

1. Key statistics for colorectal cancer, American Cancer Society.
2. You can stop colon cancer before it starts, American Cancer Society.
3. Colorectal (colon) cancer, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
4. Colorectal Cancer Screening (PDQ®)–Patient Version, National Cancer Institute.
5. Curado, Maria-Paula, Brenda Edwards, Hai Rim Shin, Hans Storm, Jacques Ferlay, Mary Heanue, and Peter Boyle. Cancer incidence in five continents, Volume IX. IARC Press, International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2007.
6. Frezza, Eldo E., Mitchell S. Wachtel, and Maurizio Chiriva-Internati. “Influence of obesity on the risk of developing colon cancer.” Gut 55, no. 2 (2006): 285-291.
7, 8, 10, 16, 19. Preventing bowel cancer, National Health Service.
9. Sinha, Rashmi, Wong Ho Chow, Martin Kulldorff, John Denobile, James Butler, Montserrat Garcia-Closas, Rusty Weil, Robert N. Hoover, and Nathaniel Rothman. “Well-done, grilled red meat increases the risk of colorectal adenomas.” Cancer Research 59, no. 17 (1999): 4320-4324.
11. Chan, Andrew T., and Edward L. Giovannucci. “Primary prevention of colorectal cancer.” Gastroenterology 138, no. 6 (2010): 2029-2043.
12. Huncharek, Michael, Joshua Muscat, and Bruce Kupelnick. “Colorectal cancer risk and dietary intake of calcium, vitamin D, and dairy products: a meta-analysis of 26,335 cases from 60 observational studies.” Nutrition and cancer 61, no. 1 (2008): 47-69.
13. Keum, NaNa, and Edward L. Giovannucci. “Folic acid fortification and colorectal cancer risk.” American journal of preventive medicine 46, no. 3 (2014): S65-S72.
14. Stoner, Gary D., Li-Shu Wang, Nancy Zikri, Tong Chen, Stephen S. Hecht, Chuanshu Huang, Christine Sardo, and John F. Lechner. “Cancer prevention with freeze-dried berries and berry components.” In Seminars in cancer biology, vol. 17, no. 5, pp. 403-410. Academic Press, 2007.
15. Preventing bowel cancer, National Health Service.
17. Wong, Helen Pui Shan, L. E. Yu, Emily Kai Yee Lam, Emily Kin Ki Tai, William Ka Kei Wu, and Chi-Hin Cho. “Nicotine promotes colon tumor growth and angiogenesis through β-adrenergic activation.” Toxicological Sciences 97, no. 2 (2007): 279-287.
18. Alcohol Use and Cancer, American Cancer Society.
CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.