Over the years, researchers have identified several risk factors that may increase a person’s chances of developing colon cancer. However, having one or even several of these risk factors does not necessarily mean you will get colon cancer.
It’s also important to note not everyone who develops colon cancer shows signs of risk factors.1
Although they make no guarantees, these risk factors are helpful indicators of people who may need to take extra health measures to guard against colon cancer. If you think you may be at above average risk or are unsure, talk to your doctor.
Factors You Cannot Change
Although young adults can develop colon cancer, people over 50 are much more likely to have the disease. In fact, 9 out of 10 people diagnosed with colon cancer are at least 50 years old.2
Personal History of Colon Polyps or Colon Cancer
If you have a history of colon polyps or cancer, especially if the polyps are large and/or numerous, you are at a higher risk for developing colon cancer.
If you have had colon cancer before, there is a higher chance that you will develop cancer in other areas of the colon.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Inflammatory bowel disease is a condition in which the colon becomes inflamed over an extended period of time.
IBD increases risk of colon cancer, and if you have it you may need to be screened earlier and more frequently than recommended.
Family History of Colon Cancer
Although most colon cancers occur in people without a family history, as many as 1 in 5 people who develop colon cancer have other family members who have also been diagnosed with the disease.3
This link is not clear in all cases, but research shows that cancers can be genetic due to inherited genes and shared environmental factors.
People with first degree relatives (parents, siblings, or children) who have had colon cancer are therefore at an increased risk.
African Americans, Native Alaskans, Jews of Eastern European descent and certain other racial and ethnic groups have higher than average colon cancer incidence and mortality rates.
The scientific reasons behind this statistic have not yet been explained, but it means that these groups are at an increased risk for colon cancer.
Factors You Can Change
There is plenty of research linking dietary habits to colon cancer risk. A diet high in red meats (such as beef) and processed meats (like lunchmeats, sausages and bacon) increases risk of colon cancer.
However, diets high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can reduce risk.4
Being overweight increases the risk of developing colon cancer in both adult men and women.5
A lack of physical activity may be an indicator of increased colon cancer risk. However, an increase in physical activity level may reduce risk.
New research shows that long-term cigarette smoking is associated with a higher risk of colon cancer.6
Heavy Alcohol Use
High alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk of colon cancer in both men and women. Alcohol use should be limited to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.7
What does this mean for me?
Although having one or even several of these risk factors does not guarantee you will develop colon cancer, research shows you may be at higher risk if you do.
If you have any of these risk factors, talk to your doctor about your colon cancer screening options. The old saying rings true: it is always much better to be safe than sorry.