Most of us know someone who has battled colon cancer. It’s the third most common type of cancer in the US. And it’s the second most common cause of cancer deaths in men and women combined. Even though colon cancer happens so often, doctors still don’t know exactly what causes it.
The one thing that all types of cancer have in common is that the genetic material of the cell- the DNA- is damaged or “mutated.” Many things can damage DNA: chemicals in our food, water and air, radiation, viruses and even age.
When the damage happens at the wrong spot, cells can grow out of control, making a mass called a tumor. Sometimes, the mutations allow the cells to escape their normal tissues and move to other parts of the body where they don’t belong. When mutated cells move to other organs or lymph nodes, it’s called “metastasis” or “mets.”
While we don’t know what causes colon cancer, we do know there are conditions that increase a person’s risk of getting colon cancer. Knowing you have risk factors for cancer can be scary. We mentioned in an earlier article that a risk factor doesn’t cause cancer and it doesn’t mean you’ll ever get cancer. But, having one or more risk factors for colon cancer means that you have an increased risk compared to someone who doesn’t have any risk factors.
Risk factors can be looked at as things you can change and things you can’t change. For example, age, gender and family or personal history of disease can’t be changed. The older you get, the higher your risk for developing many diseases, including cancer. The risk factors you can try to change are called “lifestyle factors.”
Let’s take a look at some of the risk factors for colon cancer that you can work on changing.
- Physical activity: A sedentary lifestyle is associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. Over 50 studies of adult Americans have looked at exercise’s effects on colon cancer. People who increase the duration, intensity or frequency of exercise can reduce their risk by 30% compared to people who don’t exercise.
- Diet: Eating a lot of fatty, low fiber and sugary or highly processed foods like hot dogs and lunch meats can increase your risk of colon cancer. People who eat lots of veggies, fruits and whole foods, tend to have a lower risk of colon cancer.
- Weight: People who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of getting colon cancer. They also have a higher risk of dying from colon cancer once they get it. If you’re overweight, losing just a little weight every year can reduce your risk of pre-cancerous polyps by almost 50%. Type 2 Diabetes is frequently a complication of being overweight. Type 2 Diabetes seems to be a risk factor for colon cancer. Many people who lose weight find that their Type 2 Diabetes goes into remission. So losing a few pounds may help reduce two different risk factors.
- Alcohol use: People who drink a moderate (1 drink on most nights) or more, have a 20%-50% increased risk of developing colon cancer compared to people who don’t drink.
- Tobacco use: Tobacco use and smoking is one of the major risk factors for developing colon cancer. The chemicals in tobacco are known to damage DNA in many types of cells. Quitting tobacco can reduce your risk for colon cancer and other diseases as well.
The Bottom Line:
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes colon cancer in individual patients. They do know that colon cancer, like all other cancers, can happen when DNA gets damaged and allows cells to grow out of control. They also know that certain risk factors increase our risk of developing colon cancer. Some of the risk factors are because of lifestyle choices we make and they can be changed. If you have risk factors, it’s especially important to get checked out with a screening test at the earliest possible time. Check it for someone you love. #CheckIt4Andretti.
- Doctors can’t say exactly what causes colon cancer to happen in most people
- Colon cancer develops when DNA in the cells of the large intestine are damaged
- You can’t change your family history or age, but you may be able to change some of your “lifestyle” risk factors and possibly reduce your chance of developing colon cancer.
- If you have risk factors, make sure to get checked for colon cancer at the right time. Screening tests such as colonoscopy can help find polyps and cancers early.