Colon Cancer

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The single most important element in colon cancer prevention is adhering to screening guidelines. If detected early, polyps can be removed before they become cancerous.

Diet may play some role in determining the incidence of colorectal cancers in the general population. Diets high in fat and red meat may be associated with higher risk for the disease.

People who use aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) regularly (more than 16 times per month) have a lower risk of developing colorectal cancer. Researchers are still investigating the mechanism by which these drugs exert their protective effect. Calcium supplements may also reduce the risk.

This section includes information on:

Screening guidelines

People with no family history of colorectal cancer and no symptoms should get a colonoscopy at age 50 and at regular intervals thereafter.

People who have a family member with colon or rectal cancer or adenomatous (precancerous) polyps should get a colonoscopy at age 40 or 10 years before the age at which the youngest family member was diagnosed. (When one family member gets colon or rectal cancer, first-degree relatives—parents, sisters, brothers, and children—have a higher risk than the general population of developing colon or rectal cancer.)

Discuss with your doctor what other tests might be appropriate for you, at what age you should begin screening, and how often you should be tested.

Diet

Several different lines of evidence suggest that a healthy diet helps prevent colon cancer. Obesity in middle age, for instance, is associated with increased risk of colon cancer in men and women. And although the incidence of colorectal cancer varies widely from country to country, groups migrating from low-risk to high-risk regions can experience an increase in the incidence of the disease.

Diets high in fat have been shown to be linked to a greater risk of colon cancer. To lower this risk, experts suggest reducing your level of dietary fat to fewer than 35 percent of the total calories consumed.

Diets rich in vegetables and high-fiber grains, such as brown rice, have been shown to lower colon cancer risk. Fiber appears to exert its protective effects in at least two ways: First, fiber decreases fecal transit time by increasing the bulk of stools. Second, that extra bulk dilutes the concentration of other harmful substances in the colon, including carcinogens, weakening their potential impact.

To minimize colon cancer risk, doctors recommend eating at least 25 grams of fiber a day through a diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Your choice of meat may also affect your colon cancer risk. Although it is notoriously difficult to determine which components of a diet are most important in conferring cancer risk, studies show a strong dose-related association between red meat and fat intake and colorectal cancer. While consumption of animal fat is positively associated with colon cancer, consumption of fish and skinless chicken is acceptable.

Tobacco and alcohol use

Smokers have a 30 to 40 percent higher risk than nonsmokers of developing the disease. It is generally known that chemicals in smoke can cause cancers in those parts of the body with which they come in direct contact, including the mouth, esophagus, and lungs. But carcinogens in smoke also can find their way into the gut, where they damage tissues.

In addition, heavy drinkers have a higher risk of getting colon cancer.

Last reviewed on 7/22/09

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