Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center

Colorectal Cancer: Easy Prevention Tips

This Type of Cancer Is Nearly Preventable. Why Does It Still Take Lives?

Did you know you can make lifestyle changes to dramatically reduce your risk of colorectal cancer?

doctor talking with patient
Talk to your doctor about how to prevent colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer is among the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States and one of the most preventable, yet it is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths. Abnormal cells in a polyp most often take years to develop into colorectal cancer, so following recommended screenings can usually either find and remove polyps before they become cancerous or detect cancer early while it is treatable. That’s why getting the regular recommended screenings is important. 

You can reduce your risk of colorectal cancer by taking certain steps. 

1. Get the Recommended Cancer Screenings and Know Your Family Medical History

People of average risk for colorectal cancer should be screened starting at age 45, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). The ACS recently lowered the recommended age from 50 to 45 due to an increase in cases of colorectal cancer in younger patients, says Cecelia Brewington, M.D., Professor in the Department of Radiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

How often you will need to repeat screening will depend on the type of test and certain risk factors. A colonoscopy, for example, should be repeated every 10 years. There are many screening options. Your doctor can help you pick one that works for you and your lifestyle and schedule. 

“If you have a family history of colon, rectal, or other cancers, it’s important to talk to your doctor about the potential need to start screenings before age 45,” Dr. Brewington says. 

2. Pay Attention to Your Body

If you notice a change in bowel function that doesn’t go away after a few days, talk to your physician. Ongoing diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool are examples. Keep an eye out for blood in the stool, dark stools, or rectal bleeding as well. These symptoms don’t necessarily mean you have colorectal cancer. In many cases, they are related to a benign (noncancerous) issue, but they warrant a discussion with your doctor and possible tests or monitoring to determine what might be the cause. 

3. Boost Activity, Eat a Healthy Diet, and Maintain a Healthy Weight

A study published in the journal BMC Cancer showed that getting adequate exercise can reduce your risk of colorectal cancer. The ACS recommends adults engage in 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week to reduce the risk of 13 types of cancer.

Aim to eat more fruits and veggies to boost fiber intake. Also, reduce your consumption of red or processed meats, according to Gastroenterology.

Obesity increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer by about 30%, according to the National Cancer Institute. Use a combination of diet and exercise to achieve or maintain a healthy body mass index, known as BMI.

4. Quit Smoking and Reduce Alcohol Intake

Smoking is linked to an increased risk of rectal cancer. If you are a smoker, talk to your doctor about a method to quit. UT Southwestern offers a free smoking cessation program funded through our Simmons Cancer Center. If you consume alcohol, do so in moderation. People who drink more than seven alcoholic beverages per week have a 72% increased risk of colorectal cancer when compared to nondrinkers, according to the British Journal of Cancer. The ACS recommends limiting alcohol consumption to two servings per day for men and one for women.

Know Your Screening Options

“When it comes to colorectal cancer screenings in Texas, we’re still only reaching about the 60th percentile, which means that we are losing out on the opportunity to save lives and prevent cancer,” says Dr. Brewington. “That’s why we have options to meet you where you are available and get the screenings done.”

Traditional colonoscopy involves a detailed examination of the rectum and colon to detect and remove polyps. Patients are asleep under a mild sedation during traditional colonoscopy. Every patient is required to have a ride home from the exam and to rest the remainder of the day.

Virtual colonoscopy is less invasive. The health care provider takes a 3D picture of the inside of the colon using a CT scanner. Patients remain awake for the exam, can drive themselves home, and even return to work or other daily activities immediately afterward. If signs of disease are found, however, the patient will then need to schedule a traditional colonoscopy. For patients at higher-than-average risk, a doctor should recommend the best options based on those risk factors.

The other recommended screening options for average-risk individuals are stool-based tests, which have also been shown to reduce death from colorectal cancer. Patients can collect stool samples at home and bring them to the doctor’s office or send them through the mail for laboratory testing. The most common stool-based tests are:

  • Fecal immunochemical tests (FITs), which can detect hidden blood in the stool – a symptom of colon cancer. Patients place a stool sample in a small tube provided by a doctor, and the sample is then tested in a lab.
  • Guaiac-based fecal occult blood tests (gFOBTs) also look for hidden blood in the stool through a chemical reaction. Patients can test their stool with a kit and detailed instructions provided by a doctor.

“We tell everyone that the gold standard of colorectal cancer screening is colonoscopy,” says Dr. Brewington. “But for patients who avoid it or put it off, there are other options. What’s most important is that you get screened.”

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