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Understanding risks for colon cancer

Colon cancer, or colorectal cancer, is one of the most common forms of cancer diagnosed in the United States. Fortunately, colon cancer is also one of the most preventable and treatable types of cancer. Keep reading to learn about common colon cancer risks and how often you should get tested for colorectal cancer. 

What are common risk factors for colorectal cancer?

The risk of getting colorectal cancer increases as you age. Colorectal cancer is often preventable because many of these cancers develop slowly, in stages, starting in a non-cancerous (benign) colon polyp. Identifying colorectal cancer symptoms and removing polyps early on is your key to prevention.

Other risk factors that can increase your risk of getting colorectal cancer include:

  • a personal or family history of colon polyps or colorectal cancer
  • a strong family history of colorectal cancer
  • personal history of inflammatory bowel disease affecting the colon (ulcerative colitis or Crohn's colitis)
  • family history of genetic colon cancer syndromes (for example, Lynch syndrome) or polyposis syndromes
  • eating foods high in fat and low in fiber
  • not eating enough fruits and vegetables. 

Colorectal cancer symptoms

Colorectal cancer symptoms include:

  • change in bowel habits
  • rectal bleeding
  • blood in your stool
  • stools that are narrower than usual
  • consistent pain during bowel movements
  • constipation or diarrhea lasting more than one month
  • stomach discomfort (bloating, fullness, cramps, gas, abdominal pain)
  • a feeling that your bowel does not empty completely
  • unexplained weight loss.

Some colorectal cancer symptoms can also be signs of other problems such as ulcers, an inflamed colon or hemorrhoids. 

Preventing colon cancer

There are a few manageable steps you can take to prevent colorectal cancer. 

  • Get regular screening tests. Routine colon cancer screening tests, such as a colonoscopy or a stool test (iFOBT), can help you catch pre-cancerous growths.
  • Modify your diet. Improve your colon health with a diet low in fat and high in fiber. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Include 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day along with whole grains.
  • Make lifestyle changes. Make healthy choices, especially at a young age, to improve your overall health and decrease your risk of developing colorectal cancer. Get regular exercise and maintain a healthy weight. Drinking alcohol, using tobacco, being overweight and not getting enough exercise can increase your risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Ask about over-the-counter options. Consider talking with your doctor about the benefits of taking low-dose aspirin daily. Studies suggest that daily aspirin could reduce the risk of colorectal polyps and cancer.

Why are more younger adults getting colon cancer?

You may have heard more younger adults are getting colon cancer. Clinical experts aren't sure why. Some reports claim sugary drinks may increase the risk of early colorectal cancer, but there isn't conclusive evidence.  

However, monitoring your sugar intake can help you prevent blood sugar issues, heart disease and other serious conditions.10 tips for weaning off sugar

When to get screened for colon cancer

Don’t wait. Early screening could save your life. Your health care provider may recommend screening before the age of 45 if you’re at higher risk. Consider genetic counseling if you have a personal or family history of cancer. Learn about colon cancer screening options and ask your health care provider which one is right for you.

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