Are we capable of changing our colorectal cancer risk? The answer is yes!

By Puja Berry MD MSc, General, Colon and Rectal Surgeon with WellSpan Surgical Specialists

Courtesy of iStock

Courtesy of iStock

This editorial is part of Transforming Health’s Expert Voices, where health care professionals discuss issues facing our community. All information is based on the expert’s experience and is not meant to replace professional medical advice or treatment plans. We encourage you to contact a qualified health care professional to discuss your individual health concerns.

Many people do not know this, but our lifestyle choices have a direct impact on our risk of developing colon or rectal cancer. While some colorectal cancers are related to genetics, most are sporadic, meaning they happen in a person in a non-hereditary fashion.

Courtesy of WellSpan Health

Puja Berry MD MSc, General, Colon and Rectal Surgeon with WellSpan Surgical Specialists

March is Colorectal Cancer Month, a time when we focus attention on the third most common cancer for both men and women. Colon and rectal cancers happen in a part of the gastrointestinal system known as the colon, or large intestine. Rectal cancers occur in one of the farthest parts of the gastrointestinal system, the last 6 inches or so.

The best way to detect colorectal cancer is through a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is an outpatient, low-risk procedure where a physician inserts a camera on a long flexible tube into the colon. The physician then evaluates the entire colon in a 360-degree fashion.

The interesting thing about a colonoscopy is that this is the only way physicians can prevent colon cancers. How does this happen? If a polyp is detected, we remove it through various techniques, and this immediately reduces cancer risk.

But what can YOU do to help yourself? There are three key lifestyle choices that can directly reduce your risk.

  • Maintain a healthy body weight.

We know that obesity is linked not only to developing colorectal cancer but can also increase your risk of cancer spreading, if you already have it. What does this mean? Maintaining a healthy weight will greatly reduce your risk of malignancy. A healthy, active lifestyle, with at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a day, can help accomplish this goal.

  • Reduce alcohol intake and eliminate tobacco.

Alcohol consumption and smoking are also great ways to modify your risk. Alcohol consumption should be limited to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women. Do not use any tobacco products of smoke cigarettes.

  • Eat a healthy, plant-based diet that is low in red meat.

Diets that are high in whole grains, plants, and fiber lower your risk of colorectal cancer. Calcium and dairy have been shown in some studies to decrease your risk as well. Any processed meat or red meats increase risk of colon cancer. Eating even a small number of processed meats, such as deli meats, once a week, increases the risk so it is best to try to eliminate these as much as possible.

Lastly, processed foods  – foods high in sugar or sugar substitutes, frozen meals or microwave meals – increase your risk and make it more likely for the cancer to present at a later stage if you do develop colorectal cancer.

It is time to take charge of your health, make your wellness a priority, and reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.