(Dr. James Hubbard is a veteran family practitioner, writer, and publisher of myfamilydoctormag.com, a website written by health-care providers.)
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Awareness is good, but I’ll bet you’d like to know how to prevent the stuff. I think that’s probably the month’s real objective.
You have a one in 20 chance of developing colorectal (large intestine) cancer in your lifetime. Not great odds if you ask me. And it’s deadly—the second most common cause of U.S. cancer deaths per year. The overall five-year survival rate is around 50 percent, but it’s much better if you catch it early. In fact, there are ways to prevent it altogether.
Colorectal cancer is equal opportunity toward the sexes. Your race won’t matter much either. However, black people have seen an uptick in diagnoses in the last few years, causing the American College of Gastroenterology to recommend beginning routine colonoscopy screening at age 45 rather than the normal 50.
No matter your age, race or sex, here are things we can all do to decrease risk.
1. Healthy Eating
Current recommendations say to eat five servings a day of a variety of fruits and vegetables. But that’s not all. Cut back on red and processed meat and fatty foods in general. Experts believe when these foods break down in the intestines, they produce cancer-causing chemicals. And load up on the fiber. Whole-grain breads and cereals are some good sources. They, along with the vegetables, help rid the body of those nasty chemicals.
2. Change your lifestyle.
You’ve heard it before, but take heed. Lifestyle changes really do make a difference. How much?
Exercise can decrease your risk of colorectal cancer by almost 50 percent. A brisk 30-minute walk five days a week goes a long way. Forty-five minutes to an hour is even better.
Obesity increases your risk by 1.5 to 3 times.
Smoking increases your risk as much as 3 times.
Excessive alcohol is bad also.
3. Consider other options.
Some studies have shown aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen or naproxen may lower your risk, but there can be major side effects. Talk to your doctor. Also helpful may be garlic and multivitamins with folic acid, dietary calcium and vitamin D.
Things You Can’t Change
Most of us don’t really want to stop getting older, considering the alternative. But the risk of colorectal cancer does rise after age 40 and really gets going after 50.
Some of us—as much as 5 or 10 percent—have a genetic tendency or bowel disease that makes us more prone. Also, if you have a close relative who has had cancer, or even a benign but precancerous polyp, you may need to get checked at an earlier age and more frequently. Ask your doctor.
We all are at enough risk to have an incentive to prevent this horrible disease.
Doing all of the above certainly lowers your risk. But not to zero. So what else should you do?
Screen, screen, screen. The good news is about two-thirds of these cancers can be completely prevented if you just take time to be screened. Some studies show much higher prevention rates.