Colorectal cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in the United States. One of the goals of Colon Cancer Awareness Month (March) is to highlight the importance of healthy habits and screening to prevent or reduce the incidence of colorectal cancer.
The colon is a vital part of the digestive system and different conditions can cause it to function improperly. Maintaining healthy habits such as exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco products, and eating a healthy diet are all preventative measures that will reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Obesity is linked to an increase in risk for colorectal cancer. But, a diet packed with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will go a long way in maintaining a healthy weight and help decrease your risk for developing colorectal cancer.
Processed meats which include lunch meat and fatty cuts of red meat are high in saturated fat and have been linked to increased risk for colorectal cancer. Eliminating intake of processed meats like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs can help improve colon health. Limiting red meat intake to about 18 ounces per week will do the same. Choosing leaner animal proteins like skinless, white meat poultry or fish are good alternatives and can be prepared in multiple ways.
Over the years, studies have shown that not all fats are bad. Choosing unsaturated fats and avoiding trans fats is key. Trans fats are found in most processed foods including commercially prepared cakes, crackers, refrigerator dough products, some frozen entrees, and more. Be sure to read labels to check for these types of fats and avoid them.
Unsaturated fats, however, can lower cholesterol and improve cell health. Try to include sources of omega-3 fatty acids in your daily diet. Fish, including tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines, and shrimp, are all healthy sources of omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids.
A high-fiber diet also contributes to lowering risk. You should consume at least 30 grams of fiber daily from about five servings of fruits and vegetables and three small servings of whole grains. Oatmeal, broccoli, raspberries, bananas, beans, celery, and whole wheat pasta are examples of foods that contain healthy doses of fiber. Other fiber-rich whole grains include brown rice, whole wheat, and whole wheat breakfast cereals.
Studies show that calcium and vitamin D may lower colorectal cancer risks. Low-fat dairy products including milk, cheese, yogurt, and dark leafy vegetables like kale and collard greens are all rich sources of calcium. Sources of vitamin D include egg yolks, fortified cow’s milk, sardines, and chicken livers.
Exercise is another big part of the equation. Exercise increases blood flow and circulation and helps your colon get more oxygen. While your exercise routine does not need to be extreme, walking or jogging 10 to 15 minutes a day, stretching, and other light exercise contribute to a healthier colon.
While following a healthy diet and exercising will help reduce your risk, you should still begin colorectal screening at age 40 or earlier if you have a family history. Colorectal screening can detect pre-cancerous polyps or cancer at an early stage when treatment is the most successful. The good news is that in the last decade there has been unprecedented progress in reducing colorectal cancer incidence and death rates in the U.S. The incidence in both men and women has been decreasing annually by about 3 percent, and the mortality rates have been dropping as well. These improvements are the result of cancer prevention and early diagnosis through screening and better treatment modalities.
Be sure to discuss screening options with your physician. He or she can recommend when you should begin testing based on your age and personal risk factors.
Steven J. McClane, MD, FACS, FASCRS is the Head of the Division of Colorectal Surgery at Cooper University Health Care. To learn more about screening options for colorectal cancer prevention, click here.