The lifetime risk of a woman having colorectal cancer is 1 in 20, according to the latest data from the American Cancer Society. For men, it is 1 in 19.
"Those are high odds," says Ryan C. Wanamaker, MD, a gastroenterologist who recommends a whole-grain diet and plenty of physical activity for people who desire not only cancer prevention but a better quality of life.
"Obesity is a great driving force for poor health in our country," Wanamaker says. "It has been shown to be associated with multiple cancers, not only colon but breast, uterine, kidney, and esophagus-all have a direct correlation to obesity."
A recent study conducted in Europe found that participants who quit smoking, lowered their alcohol intake, exercised at least 30 minutes a day, and consumed a healthy diet had a reduced risk of developing colorectal cancer. Not surprisingly, similar results have been found in past studies conducted here in the States.
"I think it's consistent with the data that's been show previously in observational studies," Wanamaker says.
1. Quit smoking and keep alcohol intake moderate.
"Lung cancer is what we all think about with smoking, but there is a clear association with it and colorectal and esophageal cancer," Wanamaker says. "So here's just another reason why people should quit."
The study also indicated that waist circumference is a factor, recommending below 35 inches for woman and 40 inches for men.
2. Begin a regular exercise program.
"Unfortunately, there is no easy button for this," Wanamaker says. "I don't personally advocate weight loss pills. Some of my patients have found success from working out in a gym or attending weight loss clinics."
3. Eat a healthy diet, with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Lower your red meat intake.
Controlling portion sizes and including whole grains, fruits and vegetables in your diet, as well as finding time for exercise are not complicated changes, but Dr. Wanamaker admits they can be difficult to implement.
"In our society, finding the time to be physically active is probably a greater challenge than understanding its importance to your health," he says, adding that if you can make the time for exercise, "you're doing a tremendous service to yourself."
Red meat is another potential culprit, but Dr. Wanamaker understands that patients think it's too juicy to give up completely.
"You don't have to be a vegetarian, but minimizing your red meat intake is a reasonable approach to diet," Wanamaker says. One thing he does recommend adding to the diet is calcium.
"Calcium supplementation has been looked at by multiple studies," Wanamaker says, noting one study that demonstrated a decrease in the formation of new colon polyps (prec-cancerous growths) in patients who previously had polyps and were given calcium supplements.
4. Discuss supplements and other treatments with your doctor.
Aspirin has also been shown to have a beneficial effect on colon cancer prevention, but because a possible side effect of aspirin is gastrointestinal bleeding, Dr. Wanamaker suggests that the benefits outweigh the risks only in certain cases.
"You have to individualize any treatment," he says. "For average risk patients, I don't recommend taking regular aspirin solely for the purpose of colorectal cancer prevention. If you've had colon cancer before or have large polyps, discuss with a physician whether or not aspirin is right for you."
5. Get the necessary screenings based on your risk.
Preventative medicine is making a huge difference in the fight against colon cancer.
"The good news is that, along with our efforts to address healthy living, the different screenings that we do are very effective," Wanamaker says. "That's borne out by the fact that the colorectal cancer rate continues to drop in this country."
Colonoscopy is the gold standard for colorectal cancer screenings. People over the age of 50 are candidates of this screening; those with a family history of this cancer should consider getting screened as early as 40.
The other lifestyle changes that are crucial to prevention can be started at any age. The list is not a long one but it does have long-term effects, not only for prevention but quality of life.
"The better we take of our bodies," says Wanamaker, "the better our bodies will take care of us."