Cancer is a frightening word and an incredibly common disease, with estimates suggesting that, by 2040, new total cases will rise to nearly 30 million per year. The disease can attack almost anywhere in the body, and excluding skin cancer, colon cancer is the second most common form of the disease in America when men and women are combined.
Estimates from the American Cancer Society show that in 2021 the number of new cases of colorectal cancer is estimated at 150,000. Although the rates of new diagnosis have dropped since the 1980s, driven primarily by a fall in cases in the older generations due to increased screening and early detection, cases in younger people are increasing.
Epidemiology of colon cancer
As one of the most common forms of cancer in America, colorectal cancer can impact anyone. However, the risks of developing the disease increase significantly with age, and over 90% of diagnoses are in those aged over 50. It is also the most common form of cancer in those 75 and older.
In terms of gender, incidences between men and women are split equally, while in terms of race, African Americans have higher diagnosis rates alongside lower survival rates. Studies have shown that the decreased survival rate can be linked to lower screening tests and less access to health care treatments. The recommended screening age for African Americans is, and has been, 45 for many years.
Screening for colon cancer
Colon cancer can be tough to discover because it often does not cause any symptoms at all, so regular screening and checks are essential. The American Cancer Society (ACS) has just this year updated its guidelines for colorectal cancer screening and recommends people at average risk for colorectal cancer begin screening at age 45. These changes came about as recent statistics show rates of colorectal cancer among people younger than 50 have been increasing.
Research has shown that early detection is crucial to reducing both the incidence and mortality of colon cancer. Yet despite this, only 54% of those aged over 50 are undergoing regular screening for colorectal cancer. There is a range of factors associated with the underutilization of screening resources for colon cancer. Lack of health insurance and not regularly seeking preventative services are among the most common.
There is a range of geographic and ethnic disparities in the number of people going for screening. Caucasians have the highest rate of screenings with 41%, while just 21% of the Hispanic population underwent any screening modality.
Risk factors of colorectal cancer
Estimates suggest that up to 25% of colon cancer cases occur in patients who have a family history of the disease. Like with all cancers, some risk factors for colorectal cancer, such as age or race, cannot be changed. However, there are also several lifestyle factors that could contribute to a higher risk of developing the condition. Some of the most common risk factors include:
– Being overweight
Research has shown that being overweight or obese can significantly increase the risk of developing and dying from colon cancer. While this is the case for both men and women, being overweight appears to have a higher impact on men.
Working to lose weight and ensuring you maintain a healthy lifestyle can help you to lower your risk of developing colon cancer.
– Lack of physical activity
Another lifestyle risk factor of colorectal cancer is a lack of physical activity. Living a sedentary life can cause a wide range of health conditions, so being more active will not only help you to reduce the risk of developing colon issues but also support your health in many ways.
Getting physically active can also help you to lose weight, lowering your risk even further.
One of the biggest lifestyle factors that can contribute to developing colon cancer is your diet. Following a diet that is high in red meat such as beef, pork, lamb, and processed meats, increases your risk of getting colorectal cancer.
Incorporating more fruit, whole grains, and vegetables into your diet has been shown to be protective and lower the risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
Smoking is typically associated with increasing the risk of lung cancer, but it has also been shown that regular long-term heavy smokers are at greater risk of developing colon cancer. Giving up smoking is one of the most beneficial things that you can do for your health.
Alongside smoking, heavy alcohol use can increase the risk of disease and health issues, including colon cancer. Cutting down on your alcohol consumption can help you lower this risk, as well as helping you cut back on calorie consumption and reduce weight.
Being aware of these risk factors and working to minimize how they impact your life can help you to significantly lower your risk of developing colon cancer. Changing your diet to follow a more plant-forward diet (such as a vegan, vegetarian or Mediterranean diet) can reduce the risk of developing the disease. Research from the Loma Linda University in California identified that those following a vegetarian diet had a 22% lower chance of colorectal cancer compared to those who did not.
That same research showed that those who incorporated fish into the diet but not red meat saw that chance reduce even further to 43%. The Omega 3 Fatty Acids typically found in certain fish and plant-based foods such as seeds and walnuts is believed to be the cause for this increased protection. Additional research has found that incorporating coffee, garlic, vitamin D, and calcium into your diet can help to reduce your chances of developing colon cancer further.
Making lifestyle changes can be challenging, but by making small changes daily and weekly, these will amount in big changes in the coming months and years. Start with these:
- Avoid red and processed meats and incorporate more whole plant based foods into into your diet.
- Start by adding one new fruit, vegetable, whole grain, legume nut and seed every week.
- Get active. Any activity is better than no activity. Do things you enjoy: Walk your dog, go to a park, or simply put a dance class on youtube and have a dance party in your living room!
- Avoid alcohol and smoking. When the urge hits, distract yourself with another activity for 10 mins! This is usually enough time to curb the craving.
- Just as important as the above recommendations is to get Screened! The best screening is the one that gets done! So if you are 45, ask your doctor about getting screened today. If you have a family history of colon cancer or certain polyps, personal history of radiation to the pelvis or abdomen, or have personal history of colon polyps or have inflammatory bowel disease, your screening age will differ, so ask your doctor today.
These steps can help protect you from many diseases and offer a wide array of health benefits. Specializing in digestive disorders, Dr. Méndez understands what it takes to optimize your health. Her goal is not to simply provide treatment for symptoms but get to the root cause and provide lasting relief.
Looking to optimize your health? Get in touch today.
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Siegel RL, Miller KD, Sauer AG, et al. Colorectal cancer statistics, 2020. American Cancer Society Journals. https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21601. Published March 5, 2020. Accessed March 18, 2021.
Body Weight and Cancer Risk. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/diet-physical-activity/body-weight-and-cancer-risk.html. Accessed March 18, 2021.
Godman H. Vegetarian diet linked to lower colon cancer risk. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/vegetarian-diet-linked-to-lower-colon-cancer-risk-201503117785#:~:text=Those%20who%20ate%20a%20vegetarian,is%20called%20a%20pescovegetarian%20diet. Published March 12, 2015. Accessed March 18, 2021.
Team, M. C. (2021, February 4). When Should You Start Getting Screened for Colorectal Cancer? American Cancer Society Update for Colorectal Cancer Screening. https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/american-cancer-society-updates-colorectal-cancer-screening-guideline.html