Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the U.S., with 150,000 new cases diagnosed every year. In fact, women carry a one-in-25 lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer, while men carry a one-in-23 risk, says the American Cancer Society. Of course, your risk level is more than just a statistic—it can be greatly influenced by the lifestyle choices you make on a daily basis. We spoke with Anton Bilchik, MD, PhD, a surgical oncologist and division chair of general surgery at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and chief of medicine at Saint John’s Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California, and asked him for his best tips on avoiding this potentially deadly cancer. Read on for his thoughts on the four best ways to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.
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Bilchik says taking control of your weight is an important part of preventing colon cancer. “Patients that are obese are at higher risk for getting colon cancer. The cause may be related to insulin resistance and poor glucose control, which may stimulate cancer cells to grow,” he tells Best Life.
One of the best ways to lower your weight is through a healthy eating plan that includes a wide variety of whole foods. “Diet and nutrition play an important role in the prevention of colon cancer,” he explains. “There is level one evidence of the association between processed food, red meat, and colon cancer. There is also evidence that a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of getting colon cancer.”
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In addition to eating healthier meals, Bilchik recommends getting regular physical activity as a means of lowering your cancer risk. “Exercise is considered anti-inflammatory, and also has a positive effect on the immune cells and the bacteria in our body that helps prevent the development of colon cancer,” he says.
Just how much exercise is enough to impact your cancer risk? According to the American Cancer Society, adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise, “preferably spread throughout the week.”
Can’t commit to that amount? Do your best to get moving whenever you can. “Even lower amounts of activity can help,” the health organization urges. “For people who haven’t exercised in a while, it makes sense to start slowly and build up gradually,” their experts advise.
Bilchik says another one of the best ways to protect yourself from a life-threatening case of colorectal cancer is to get regular screenings. “Screening for colon cancer by colonoscopy reduces the risk of getting colon cancer, because colon cancer starts as a precancerous polyp which can be removed during colonoscopy,” Bilchik says. “The current recommendations are that everyone over age 45 should get a screening colonoscopy.”
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Finally, experts from the American Cancer Society say that smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol are both habits that have been linked with colorectal cancer, and advise quitting both. “People who have been smoking for a long time are more likely than people who don’t smoke to develop and die from colon or rectal cancer,” say ACS experts, adding that it’s also “best to not drink alcohol.” However, they note that even if you do choose to drink, it’s still beneficial to your cancer risk to limit your intake to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
Speak with your doctor if you need help quitting tobacco or alcohol, or to learn other ways that you can slash your cancer risk.