Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on May 27, 2021. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
Colon cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer. Colorectal cancers represent the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States (if breast and prostate cancer are combined). About 1 in 23 men will develop colorectal cancer, while about 1 in 25 women will develop colorectal cancer. While the death rate has been gradually declining over the past several decades, colorectal cancer is still the second most common cause of cancer deaths in the country.
That might lead you to wonder how to prevent colon cancer. Completely preventing colon cancer may not be possible, but you can take certain steps to potentially reduce your risk of colon cancer, such as taking a colon cancer screening test to screen for it. Learn more about this and other tips related to colon cancer prevention below.
The colon, or large intestine, is the last part of your digestive tract. Colon cancer refers to any cancer that starts in the cells of the colon. Colon cancer is often combined with rectal cancers due to the proximity of the colon and rectum, referred to as colorectal cancer.
While colon cancer can affect anyone of any age, it is more common in older adults. It most often starts as colon polyps, which are small, noncancerous clumps that form inside the colon. Left untreated, a polyp can eventually become cancerous.
Most people with colon cancer do not experience any noticeable symptoms in its early stages. When colon cancer symptoms do arise, they will vary based on the size and location of the tumor. Common signs and symptoms of colon cancer include:
As you can imagine, these signs and symptoms are easy to mistake for digestive issues or other common health problems.
Cancers are caused by genetic mutations that result in the uncontrolled growth of cells. As these cancer cells grow, they form into growths (called tumors) that can cut off blood and nutrients to neighboring tissues and organs. That can result in severe complications and potentially death.
The exact cause of cancer, colon or otherwise, is still not known. Most doctors and researchers understand that cancer may come from a combination of environmental, personal, and hereditary factors. Certain factors can also increase your risk of colon and rectal cancer. Moderate to heavy use of alcohol has been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer, and while smoking is most often connected to lung cancer, it may also contribute to colorectal cancer.
It’s important to note that some people with many risk factors never get colon cancer, while some people without any risk factors may still be diagnosed with colon cancer. That’s why it is so important to be aware of the early signs of colon cancer so you can get tested after the first sign of an issue.
While it is impossible to completely prevent colon or rectal cancer, you can take some important steps in your everyday life to reduce your risk of getting the disease.
Regular screening is one of the best methods for preventing cancer. There are several different screening procedures, but they all revolve around looking for cancer or precancerous growths even if you show no noticeable symptoms of the disease.
For colorectal cancer screening in particular, this allows doctors to locate benign polyps and remove them before they even have the chance of developing into cancer. A polyp can take 10 to 15 years to develop into a cancerous growth, so even in cases where colon polyps may become malignant, screening can identify the colon cancer early, when it is small and easy to treat.
The CDC recommends colon cancer screening beginning at age 45. Those with a family history of colon cancer or an otherwise increased risk should consider getting screened earlier. There are a variety of different screening tests, from colonoscopies to stool tests. Talk to your doctor to determine the best option for your personal needs.
Some research suggests that maintaining a sedentary life may increase your risk of cancer and colon polyps. A sedentary life can also come with a ton of other health problems, so do your best to stay active.
There are no hard and fast rules to how much you should exercise, but most experts recommend an hour of moderate to vigorous activity on most days of the week. Whether you are taking a walk, lifting weights, or playing a team sport, something is better than nothing, so find an activity that is enjoyable and sustainable for your schedule and personal needs.
No singular food will magically stave off cancer, nor will any single food suddenly cause a malignant growth to sprout. However, your diet can potentially affect your risk of colorectal cancer.
Some research suggests that processed meat (hot dogs, deli meats, sausage) and red meat (beef, lamb, pork) may increase your risk of colon cancer. If you are already at an increased risk of colon cancer, consider limiting your intake of red meat and processed meats. Otherwise, there isn’t much of a secret to a healthy diet. Focus more on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein while limiting your intake of processed foods and foods with added sodium.
As mentioned above, long-term smoking can increase your risk of colon cancer, along with a handful of other forms of cancer. It also contributes to a wide range of health issues affecting the lungs, heart, and digestive system, and smoking can prevent the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals in your food.
Simply put, smoking provides no benefit to your health. Quitting smoking may reduce your risk of colorectal cancer and many other forms of cancer.
Alcohol presents a whole host of potential health issues, and studies have found that increased alcohol intake may increase your risk of colon cancer. While it’s best to abstain from drinking altogether, try to limit your drinking if you already have other risk factors for colon cancer. You shouldn’t have more than one to two drinks per day.
Preventing colon cancer comes with its challenges, but screening and staying vigilant with your health is the best way to go. If you are concerned about colon cancer and have a family history of the disease, consider using the Everlywell colon cancer screening kit. This provides a simple kit for at-home stool sample collection; you then ship your sample to a lab that tests for blood in your stool to potentially detect colon cancer early. You can then use the results to talk with your healthcare provider and determine the next steps for better health.