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What Can I Do if I Am at Risk for Colorectal Cancer?

 

Basket of fresh vegetables in a garden
Making healthy diet choices can help lower your risk of colon cancer.

All people are at risk of colorectal cancer to some degree, although some people have a higher risk than others. What can you do to help protect yourself against colorectal cancer? There's no sure way to prevent it, but the best thing you can do is make changes in your life that will help you control as many of the risks as you can. Here are some choices you can make that may help.

Exercise regularly

Getting at least 150 minutes of exercise each week can reduce your risk for colorectal cancer. Regular moderate exercise, such as fast walking and climbing stairs, will lower your risk. Intense physical activity, such as running or aerobics, for longer periods of time may provide even more protection. This is true even if you start exercising later in life. Here are some ways doctors think exercise helps protect you:

  • It helps you control your weight.

  • It causes stool to pass through your body more quickly.

  • It may lower levels of prostaglandins. These are substances in your cells, some of which may contribute to polyp formation.

  • It helps improve your immune system.

Limit your intake of red and processed meats, and eat plenty of vegetables and fruits

Eating a healthy diet may help lower your risk of colorectal cancer. People who eat diets that are high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in red and processed meats have been found to have lower colorectal cancer risk, although it's not exactly clear which factors in the diet are most important. For example, even though vegetables are thought to be important, it's not known if certain vegetables might be better than others in lowering risk, so the best advice is to eat a variety of them. 

Discuss menopausal hormone use with your health care provider

Studies show that women who use hormone replacement therapy, also called HRT, after menopause have a lower risk for colorectal cancer. The studies also suggest, though, that other risks, such as the risk for heart disease, blood clots, breast or endometrial cancer, or early dementia, may be higher in women who use HRT. That means the risks of HRT may outweigh the benefits. Health care providers don’t routinely recommend HRT as a way to reduce your risk for colorectal cancer. Before starting HRT, discuss all the risks with your health care provider. Then you can decide whether it is right for you.

Consider taking aspirin if you also have heart disease or chronic pain

Aspirin may lower your risk for colorectal cancer. So can other drugs called NSAIDs, such as celecoxib (Celebrex), ibuoprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). These drugs may cause serious side effects, such as an increased risk of bleeding, so health care providers don’t suggest them for colorectal cancer protection alone. If you do have to take these drugs for heart disease or chronic pain, though, cancer protection may be an added benefit.

Be sure to get enough calcium in your diet

Some studies have found that increasing calcium intake may lower a person's risk of colorectal cancer. Calcium is an important mineral in the body for a number of reasons, aside from its possible effects on cancer risk. Some studies, however, have found that higher calcium intake may increase the risk of prostate cancer in men. If you are considering taking calcium supplements, talk to your health care provider about the appropriate dose for you. 

Maintain a healthy body weight

Several studies have shown a link between excess body weight and an increased risk of colorectal cancer (as well as some other cancers). Eating a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in red and processed meats can help you maintain a healthy weight, as can getting enough physical activity.

Don't smoke or abuse alcohol

Both smoking and heavy alcohol use can raise the risk of colorectal cancer. Not smoking, and drinking in moderation (if at all), may help lower your risk. 

Talk to your health care provider about screening for colorectal polyps and cancer

Some screening tests may actually help prevent colorectal cancer by allowing the doctor to find and remove colon or rectal polyps before they have a chance to turn into cancer. Even if cancer does develop, screening often allows it to be detected early when treatment is most likely to be successful. Screening is especially important in people who are at increased risk. Talk to your health care provider about your risk for colorectal cancer, at what age you should start screening, and which tests might be right for you.