If you are over 40 years old, you may want to consider it.  The Journal of the National Cancer Institute recently published a study last month “Colorectal Cancer Incidence Patterns in the United States, 1974–2013” showing that our risk of colorectal cancer is now back to the level it was in 1890. Throwback Thursday anyone?

Specifically, the study by Siegel et al. which examined a large national population database, showed that from 1989–2013, rectal cancer incidence rates in adults:

  • Age 50 to 54 – declined by half
  • Age 55 to 59 -stayed the same
  • Younger than age 55 -doubled from 14.6% to 29.2%

The authors stated that “Age-specific relative risk by birth cohort declined from circa 1890 until 1950, but continuously increased through 1990. Consequently, compared with adults born circa 1950, those born circa 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer.”

Many of us are aware of the need to obtain a colonoscopy starting at age 50, however, studies such as this one are concerning and raise the question if screening should be started at an earlier age? Treatment for colon cancer typically requires surgery followed by months of chemotherapy. Rectal cancer treatment is also extensive, typically requiring a combination of surgery, chemo, and radiation. How can colon and rectal cancer be avoided?

Screening colonoscopies have been successful in catching colorectal cancers early, but there is more you can do. The American Cancer Society is an excellent resource and suggests the following 6 ways to reduce your risk:

  1. Get screened for colon cancer. Screenings are tests that look for cancer before signs and symptoms develop. Colon screenings can often find growths called polyps that can be removed before they turn into cancer. These tests also can find colon cancer earlier, when treatments are more likely to be successful. The American Cancer Society recommends testing starting at age 50 for most people; talk to your doctor about when you should start and which tests might be right for you.
    eating healthy to prevent colon cancer
  2. Eat lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Diets that include lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains have been linked with a decreased risk of colon cancer. Eat less red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) and processed meats (hot dogs and some luncheon meats), which have been linked with an increased risk of colon cancer.
  3. Get regular exercise. If you are not physically active, you have a greater chance of developing colon cancer. Increasing your activity may help reduce your risk. Learn more about how to meet diet and exercise goals at cancer.org/foodandfitness.
  4. Watch your weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of getting and dying from colon cancer. Eating healthier and increasing your physical activity can help you control your weight.
    quit smoking colon cancer
  5. Don’t smoke. Long-term smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to develop and die from colon cancer. If you smoke and you want to quit, or know someone else who does, see the American Cancer Society Guide to Quitting Smoking or call us at 1-800-227-2345. Getting help increases your chances of quitting successfully.
  6. Limit alcohol. Colon cancer has been linked to heavy drinking. The American Cancer Society recommends no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women. A single drink amounts to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1½ ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (hard liquor).

I agree with the ACS that being overweight, not exercising, and eating a poor diet can significantly increase your colon cancer risk. This study shows it’s never too early to start adopting good habits.

Patient-focused treatment, and an individualized approach to oncology means Dr. Norleena Gullett is not just treating cancer, she's treating the whole person.