Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop colon and rectal (colorectal) cancer. While some factors like diet and lifestyle choices can be controlled, others, such as age and family history can’t. Regardless, it’s important to understand the various factors that can increase your risk for colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer risk factors that you can control include:
- Diet. Eating red meat (beef, pork, lamb, or liver) and processed meats (luncheon meats; hot dogs) in excess can increase your risk for colorectal cancer. The risk can be lowered, however, by adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain fibers to your diet.
- Weight. Being overweight or obese, especially when most of the weight is carried in your midsection, can raise the risk of colorectal cancer in both men and women.
- Lack of exercise. Physical inactivity can put you at an increased risk.
- Alcohol use. Colorectal cancer has been linked to heavy alcohol consumption. Limiting alcohol use to 1 to 2 drinks per day can greatly decrease the risk.
- Tobacco use. While smoking is a common cause of lung cancer, it has also been linked to other cancers, including colon cancer.
Colorectal cancer risk factors that cannot be controlled include:
- Age. Colon and rectal cancers are much more common among men and women age 50 and older than in young adults.
- Race/Ethnicity. People of African American descent and Jews of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) are more likely to develop colorectal cancer than people of other races.
- Family history. Cancers can sometimes “run in the family” due to various factors including inherited genes, shared environmental factors, or a combination of both. If you have a family history of adenomatous polyps or colorectal cancer in a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, child), talk with your doctor. Genetic testing or getting screened at an earlier age might be recommended.
- Personal medical history. The risk for colorectal cancer increases for people with medical conditions such as adenomatous polyps (adenomas) and inflammatory bowel disease (including ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease).
- Diabetes. Patients with type 2 diabetes are at an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. Additionally, they tend to have poorer outcomes of colorectal cancer treatment.
Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely develop colon or rectal cancer. Likewise, not having risk factors does not mean you will not get it. If you think you may be at risk, talk with your doctor. If there are no known risk factors, begin regular screening for colon cancer by age 45.