Though we often don’t hear much about it, colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States. This is surprising, given that 75 percent of colon cancer cases can be avoided with regular screening and other healthy behaviors.
That’s why, during National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March, we remind ourselves and others that getting screened and making other healthy choices can have an enormous impact in preventing colon cancer before it starts!
To help you get started, we put together a list of eight steps you can take now to prevent colon cancer:
- Get screened. This is No. 1 because regular screening tests are the best way to protect yourself. Screening not only helps catch colon cancer early, when it’s most treatable, but also helps spot abnormal growths called polyps, which can be removed before they turn into cancer. Most people begin screening at age 50, but if you have a family history of colon cancer, your doctor may want you to start screenings earlier. Some tests are quick and easy but need to be done more often. Others are more involved but need to be done less often. Talk with a provider to help decide which test may be best for you.
The most common recommended screening options are:
- Colonoscopy (recommended every 10 years)
- Stool test – Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) or Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) (recommended every year)
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy (recommended every 5 years)
- Maintain a healthy weight. We know, easier said than done. But, except for smoking, nothing else raises the overall risk of cancer more than being overweight. If you’re already over your healthy weight, start by trying to avoid any further weight gain. Then, once you feel your weight has stabilized, slowly work to lower your weight—increase your vegetable intake, and gradually build some more physical activity into your weekly routine.
- Don’t smoke. This isn’t just good advice for lowering your risk of lung cancer. Not smoking is probably the single best thing you can do for your overall health. Smoking is a major cause of at least 15 different cancers, including colon cancer. If you’re currently a smoker, there’s no better time than today to make a plan to stop. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visit smokefree.gov for free help.
- Be physically active. Activity has amazing health benefits, including lowering the risk of colon cancer. Bonus: It can also help you achieve step No. 2! Try tracking your activity to help you set and reach achievable goals. Any amount is better than none, but 150 minutes a week of brisk walking or other moderate activity is a good goal to work toward. If that sounds like a lot, consider that it’s less than 22 minutes per day.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all. If you don’t currently drink, great—no reason for you to start now! If you do currently drink, try to keep it in moderation. This means no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two per day for men.
- Limit red meat, especially processed meat. Try to eat three servings or fewer each week—of course, fewer is better!
- Get enough calcium and vitamin D. Aim for 1000 to 1200 mg per day of calcium and about 1000 international units, or IUs, per day of vitamin D.
- Consider a multivitamin with folate. Standard-dose multivitamins are good for your overall health, and the additional folate has been shown to lower the risk of colon cancer. Finding a multivitamin that has calcium, vitamin D and folate can help you hit steps No. 7 and 8 in one easy daily dose!
These recommendations focus on small changes you can make in your daily life that have a potentially huge impact on your health. But don’t let them overwhelm you—build achievable habits into your daily routine little by little to reach lasting progress.
For a complete list of cancer screening recommendations, click here. To learn how to lower your risk of 12 cancers and six other important chronic diseases, and to get personalized tips for preventing them, visit Your Disease Risk.