Date Published: 1/30/2013

Am I At Risk for Colorectal Cancer?

Eating a lot of red meat can increase your risk for colon cancer.

There is really no way to know for sure if you're going to get colorectal cancer. Certain factors can make you more likely to get colorectal cancer than another person. These are called risk factors. However, just having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get cancer. In fact, you can have many risk factors and still not get colorectal cancer, or you can have few or no known risk factors and still get it.


See if any of the following statements in bold type apply to you. If any do, you may be at an increased risk for colorectal cancer. Some risk factors, such as having a family history of cancer or getting older, are out of your control. But some risk factors — what you eat, how much you weigh, whether you smoke, how much you drink, and how often you exercise — are factors you can control.


Every time you agree with one of the following statements, ask yourself this: "Am I doing all I can to control that risk factor?" Controlling it may seem hard, but your efforts can pay off in terms of your health and quality of life. Ask your health care providers and your loved ones to help you think of ways you can lower your risk for colorectal cancer.


I am older than age 50.

The average age that people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer is 69. That doesn't mean you can't get the disease if you are younger. Even adolescents can get it. But the fact is that more than 90 percent of cases are found in people older than age 50.


People in my immediate family have had colorectal cancer.

One out of every five people with colorectal cancer has relatives who have had the disease. That's because family members share many of the same genes. It may also be because family members often have similar lifestyles. If your parents, brothers or sisters, or your children have had the disease, you're at a much higher risk than other people. This is especially true if your relative had the cancer before age 45.


I have had colorectal cancer before.

If you've had colorectal cancer before, you're at risk for developing it in another part of your colon or rectum.


I have had polyps in my colon or rectum.

Polyps are growths that can occur in your colon and rectum. They are common in adults older than age 50. Usually they're benign. That means they are not cancerous. However, some polyps can become cancerous over time. That means that if you have a history of getting them, you may be more likely to get cancer. Polyps can be discovered and removed before they become cancer. This often happens during a routine screening test, such as a colonoscopy. You should talk with your health care provider about how often to have one of these tests done.


I have the condition familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).

FAP is a fairly rare inherited condition. It causes hundreds or thousands of polyps to form in someone who has it. These polyps often start to form during a person's teen years. Beginning at about age 20, the polyps could become cancerous. Most people with FAP develop cancer before age 40 unless they have preventive surgery.


I have the condition hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer, also called HNPCC or Lynch syndrome.

About four out of every 100 cases of colorectal cancer are caused by HNPCC. This is a rare inherited condition. It causes polyps to form early in a person's life. But unlike FAP, which causes hundreds or thousands of polyps, this condition causes only a few. This condition can also cause other cancers such as endometrial cancer or cancer of the small intestine.


I smoke.

Smoking raises a person's risk for colorectal cancer. There are many known cancer-causing agents, also called carcinogens, in cigarette smoke. Some are swallowed and can cause cancer in those parts of the digestive system they come in contact with. Some enter the blood and travel through your body to your intestines. If you smoke, your health care provider may be able to help you find a stop-smoking program that can work for you.


I'm very overweight.

Colorectal cancer is more common in people who are obese than people who are not. This is especially true for men. Researchers think that the extra weight increases insulin levels and that higher insulin levels cause polyps that can become cancerous.


I'm not physically active.

People who don't get much physical activity are at higher risk for colorectal cancer.


I have type 2 diabetes

People with type 2 diabetes (non-insulin-dependent) are more likely to get colorectal cancer. Type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer share some of the same risk factors, including obesity and physical inactivity. But even after taking these factors into account, people with type 2 diabetes still have a higher risk for colorectal cancer.


I drink a lot of alcohol.

People who drink a lot of alcohol are more likely to get colorectal cancer. And the more you drink, the higher your risk becomes. Researchers think that too much alcohol can change your DNA. Heavy drinking also lowers folic acid levels in the body. Working with your health care provider to stop drinking could lower your risk.


I eat a lot of red or processed meat.

Red meat includes beef, pork, lamb, and veal. Processed meats include hot dogs and luncheon meats. Studies show that if you eat a lot of red or processed meat, you are at a higher risk for colorectal cancer. A healthy diet that lowers your risk for cancer is one low in animal fat that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products. Eating red meat well-done may even add to your risk. Researchers say that the high temperatures usually used to cook meat can produce certain cancer-causing compounds called carcinogens. Meat may also affect how your colon works by raising your levels of iron and producing compounds that damage cells.


I have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

There are several types of IBD. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease are two. Chronic IBD causes long-term inflammation of your colon. This increases your risk for colorectal cancer. The longer you have one of these conditions, the more important it is to be screened for colorectal cancer at an earlier age and more frequently.


I'm African-American.

If you're African-American, you're more likely to get colorectal cancer than members of other population groups. You're also more likely to die of the disease. It is not clear why these differences exist. One possible reason, researchers think, is a difference in access to screening and medical care. Another possible reason could be differences in socioeconomic and lifestyle factors. Researchers are also studying the way tumors develop in African-Americans.


I'm Jewish.

If you're Jewish and of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi), you may have a higher risk of getting colorectal cancer. Some evidence suggests a gene mutation is the reason. It isn't clear, though, that this genetic change is responsible for the increased number of colorectal cancers in Ashkenazi Jews.


© 2012 Krames StayWell