Part 2: The things you can change.
Maybe none of the categories in part 1 of this blog series had anything to do with you. Or maybe you have quite a few risk factors that are outside of your control. Whichever category you fall in, you can alter your risk of colorectal cancer just based on your lifestyle habits.
Did you know that almost 40% of colorectal cancers are caused by environmental lifestyle risks that are directly impacted by your daily routine? This means, you have the chance to reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer by almost half, if you focus on some of the healthy lifestyle behaviors listed below. We know it’s easier said than done. But, what you can change today can have lasting effects on your health.
Now we will discuss risk factors that are within your control.
When you think about the American diet, what comes to mind? Fast, processed, fried, high-fat, high-sugar food. All have definitely become part of a western culture diet. Large amounts of these types of foods can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer. If you want to make small changes, reduce your intake of red meats, high-fat, and processed foods. Our melting pot American culture gives us a lot of other choices to define our culinary habits.
Your alcohol intake. Practically every TV show you watch has a stressed character that pours an alcoholic beverage to “unwind.” There are better, more healthy ways to unwind. As my mother used to ask me, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you too?” And it’s ok if your daily routine includes a glass of wine or a beer. But even if your job, friends, kids or family are driving you nuts—that’s not a daily excuse to drink—even in the midst of a pandemic lockdown. So, if you are having more than one glass a day, it’s increasing your risk of developing colorectal cancer. Reevaluate your habits, think about some small changes you can make.
Your activity level. In the US, we glorify work ethic, 16-hour days, working two jobs, taking care of kids and the house, just so we can “make-it.” Even if it comes at the cost of our own personal health. Getting some form of exercise is important to your physical and mental health. It can be ridiculously hard to find time, make time, or readjust your priorities. Make yourself a priority. Be active, even if it means parking at the back of the parking lot just so you have to walk a bit further or take the stairs up instead of the elevator. Think about changes you might be able to make to your physical activity level — this one is important for many different disease risks, including colorectal cancer.
Your BMI. The three risk factors above contribute to achieving and maintaining a healthy BMI. Having a high BMI can increase your risk for developing colorectal cancer, among many other diseases. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about your weight—and if you are afraid, it’s your doctor, not you. Find a new doctor. Weight is a complicated issue for many of us. Lowering your BMI can’t be done overnight and it can’t be done without the right support network. But it can improve your health in many ways.
Your smoking habit. Smoking increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer, among many other cancers. If you stop smoking your risk of developing colorectal cancer drops pretty quickly. If you stopped smoking more than 20 years ago, your risk related to this habit is gone!
Your colorectal screening plan. Colorectal cancer screening can start at age 45, or even earlier if you qualify. Getting a colonoscopy can reduce your change of developing colorectal cancer by catching abnormal changes early. Most colorectal cancers are slow-growing. If your doctor can find and remove pre-cancerous growths early, you’ve reduced your risk of developing colorectal cancer by over 76%. Make sure you keep your follow-up visits to stay on track!
There are many other screening options available as well. Colonoscopy is the gold-standard, but your doctor may discuss the benefits of other screening options too—especially if you are at lower risk of developing the disease.
Your medications. Certain medications have been shown to reduce risk of developing colorectal cancer. Aspirin is effective at reducing your risk. Many clinical studies have shown a 20-40% decrease in colorectal cancer in adults taking aspirin regularly. If you are at high risk of developing colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease, you might have an even greater benefit of aspirin. Don’t just self-medicate. Talk to your doctor if a low-dose aspirin might be right for you.
Other medications like Metformin are known to reduce risk of colorectal cancers in adults. This medication is typically used to control high blood sugar associated with type 2 diabetes. Adults with type 2 diabetes are at increased risk of developing colorectal cancer—so controlling your type 2 diabetes can also reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancers.
You have the opportunity to reduce your risk by almost half. If you can make small changes to your lifestyle habits, they will add up. The changes you have the opportunity to make today can impact your health for years to come. It’s never too late to start. Let us help start the conversation with your doctor; use this checklist to understand your risk factors so you can ask the right questions.
 Winawer SJ, Zauber AG, Ho MN, O'Brien MJ, Gottlieb LS, Sternberg SS, Waye JD, Schapiro M, Bond JH, Panish JF, et al. Prevention of colorectal cancer by colonoscopic polypectomy. The National Polyp Study Workgroup. N Engl J Med. 1993 Dec 30;329(27):1977-81