Though colon cancer can develop at any age, your medical history, lifestyle choices, and family history all affect your risk factors for colon cancer.
Cancer of the colon, or large intestine, is the third most common cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is also extremely dangerous: in the U.S., colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths, claiming on average more than 50,000 lives every year.
Colon cancer, however, usually responds well to treatment, and, when detected early, tumors can often be removed with few complications. Regular testing increases the chances of an early diagnosis, as does knowing your personal risk level.
Colon cancer can affect anyone, but certain groups are more likely to develop tumors in their large intestine. To keep yourself safe and healthy, it is important to know who is at risk for colon cancer.
Age risks for colon cancer
How do you get colon cancer? Though colon cancer can develop at any age, your risk increases as you get older, especially once you pass age 45. The Colon Cancer Alliance reports that more than 90 percent of cases are in people over age 50. The average age for a diagnosis is 72.
Health risks for colon cancer
Certain factors in your personal medical history or your family history can increase your risk of developing colon cancer.
If you have ever developed precancerous growths, known as polyps, in your large intestine, you are more likely to develop colon tumors as you get older. You also have a higher risk level if you or anyone in your immediate family, such as a parent or a sibling, has ever had colon cancer or polyps. The more people in your family who have had growths in their large intestine, the higher your own risk is.
A history of gastrointestinal disorders increases your risk of cancer in the large intestine. If you have ever had inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease, you are more likely to develop colon cancer. People with type 2 diabetes are have a higher colon cancer risk.
Inherited genetic conditions can put you at risk for developing colon cancer. These include familial adenomatous polyposis, a condition in which hundreds of polyps develop in the colon and rectum; Lynch syndrome, a type of inherited colon cancer that is also known as hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer; and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, which causes freckles around the mouth and polyps in the digestive tract. These conditions are caused by gene mutations and often run in families.
Risks for colon cancer
Race and ethnicity can affect colon cancer.
In the United States, African Americans are more likely to develop colon cancer than other racial groups. Worldwide, Jews of Eastern European descent, also known as Ashkenazi Jews, are the ethnic groups most at risk for colon cancer.
The American Cancer Society notes that the correlation between race, ethnicity, and colon cancer risk is not yet completely understood. It is possible that diet, socioeconomic status, access to preventative care, and inherited genetic conditions might contribute to why some racial and ethnic groups have a higher cancer risk than others.
While risk factors like age and family medical history are outside of your control, lifestyle choices that you make can increase or decrease your risk of developing cancer in your large intestine.
The colon is part of your digestive system, so its health is strongly affected by what you eat. The CDC cautions that a diet low in fiber from fruits and vegetables has been linked to higher rates of colon cancer. Eating large amounts fat and red meat can also put you at higher risk of developing colon cancer.
Other lifestyle risks include smoking, excessive drinking of alcohol, being overweight or obese, and not getting regular physical exercise or activity.
What should you do if you are at risk for colon cancer?
The CDC recommends that all adults between the ages of 50 and 75 be regularly screened for colon cancer. If you have risk factors other than age, however, you may need to begin screening earlier or be checked more regularly. African Americans, for example, should generally begin testing at age 45 rather than 50.
If you know you have risk factors in your medical or family history, it’s important to limit your lifestyle risk factors. Try to eat a diet full of fruits and vegetables, with small amounts of fat and meat. Cut down on your alcohol consumption, avoid cigarettes and other nicotine products, and get regular exercise to keep your weight down. Your doctor may have other suggestions for how to limit your chances of developing colon cancer, so be sure to discuss your health history and risk factors at your next visit.
June 13, 2017
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA