Colorectal Cancer Risks
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and while the incidence of colorectal cancer has declined somewhat, there is a disturbing increase in colorectal cancer cases in younger adults. In the United States colorectal cancer is already the leading cause of cancer death for people under the age of 50 and the rates are climbing in this age group.
Your risk for colorectal cancer increases as you get older, but you are also at increased risk if:
- You have an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.
- You have a personal or family of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps.
- You have a genetic syndrome that pre-disposed you to colorectal cancer (relatively rare)
In addition to family history and genetics, your lifestyle influences your risk for colorectal cancer. Being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking, and lack of physical activity have all been identified as behaviors that increase your risk. Diet is also a factor, and the most convincing evidence related colorectal cancer has to do with meat consumption.
The Continuous Update Project (CUP) is an ongoing research study that looks at the effect of diet, nutrition, and physical activity on cancer risk. It is a joint endeavor of the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute of Cancer Research. According to the CUP report there is convincing evidence that the consumption processed meats like hot dogs, lunch meats, sausage, bacon, ham, etc. increases risk for colorectal cancer. Their recommendation is that we consume very little, if any, processed meat.
Red meat consumption probably increases colorectal cancer risk as well. While the CUP report recognizes that it can be a good source of protein, iron, and other micronutrients, it suggests that it is not necessary to consume red meat for good nutrition. If you are going to consume red meat (beef, lamb, pork), the recommendation is to limit consumption to no more than 3 servings (for a total of 12-18 ounces) per week.
You probably won’t be surprised that foods containing fiber probably decrease your risk for colon cancer. These include fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Whole grains may offer additional cancer protective benefits independent of their fiber content.
You can’t change your family history, but you can take steps to reduce your risk for this disease. Limit your consumption of processed and red meat. Consider gradually increasing your fiber intake. Don’t forget to work on other risk factors like weight, inactivity, and alcohol consumption. And if you smoke, please find a way to stop.