A plan to prevent colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer death in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). But there are steps you can take to help protect yourself.

Regular screening and healthy lifestyle choices can help prevent the disease altogether. If cancer does develop, screening can help detect it early, when it is much easier to treat effectively.

Find it early

Most colorectal cancers start as abnormal growths, called polyps, on the lining of the intestines. These polyps can be removed before they develop into cancer. Many early colorectal cancers can also be treated successfully. According to the ACS, survival rates drop dramatically once cancer spreads to other parts of the body.

Screening is the best tool for finding polyps or colorectal cancer early. The ACS recommends that people at average risk for colorectal cancer start screening at age 45. Some effective options include:  

  • Fecal occult blood test every year.
  • Stool DNA test every three years.
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years.

Your doctor can help you decide which screening program is right for you. If you have risk factors, such as a family history of colorectal cancer, polyps or inflammatory bowel disease, your doctor may recommend that you start screening earlier or be screened more often.

Your doctor can also help you decide when to stop screening. For people ages 76 to 85, the decision to screen for colorectal cancer should be an individual one. And people over age 85 don't need screening at all.

Prevention is best

You can take steps to lower your risk by making healthy lifestyle choices. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends the following:

  • Limit intake of red meat, such as beef and lamb, to no more than 18 ounces (cooked weight) a week.
  • Avoid processed meat, such as hot dogs, ham, bacon and sausage.
  • Know the risks of alcohol. Colorectal cancer has been linked to drinking alcohol.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Be physically active for at least a half hour a day.

Research continues on the role of several nutrients in colorectal cancer prevention, including vitamins, folate, calcium and magnesium. Some pain relievers are also under study, including aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen. According to the ACS, the risks of these medicines outweigh the benefits for people at average risk of colorectal cancer. But research continues in people at high risk.

The ACS recommends consulting your doctor before you take any medicines or supplements for cancer prevention.

Don't ignore symptoms

Some colorectal cancer can't be prevented, but it can be treated. The ACS says to check with your doctor if you have:

  • Diarrhea, constipation or another change in bowel habits for more than a few days.
  • Cramping or steady stomach pain.
  • Blood in your stool or from your rectum.

Having symptoms doesn't necessarily mean you have cancer, but they should always be investigated. Getting them checked could ease your mind, or it could save your life.

reviewed 4/26/2019

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