Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors: What They Are and Who Is at Risk?

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Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors: What They Are and Who Is at Risk?

Cancer is a disease that can affect anyone — some more than others – based on their personal risk factors. Risk factors are anything that increases your chance of developing cancer. While some colorectal risk factors are within your control, others are not. 

Surprisingly, only a small percentage (about 5%) of colon and rectal cancers are hereditary or caused by an inherited genetic mutation, meaning all other diagnoses are associated with other risk factors. Because of this, it’s important to know your specific risk factors, the steps you can take to lower your risk, and when it’s time to start screening. 

What is Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal cancer develops when cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control. It can begin as polyps — small, noncancerous clumps of cells that form inside the colon. Eventually, some of these polyps can become cancerous in both the colon and the rectum.

As with many other cancers, colorectal cancer doesn’t usually produce noticeable signs or symptoms until the cancer has progressed to a more advanced stage. In fact, most cancerous polyps grow unnoticed unless detected with a screening test, which makes understanding your risks all the more critical. 

Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors You Need to Know About

Understanding your risk factors for developing colorectal cancer is helpful so that you can proactively talk to your doctor about the right time to start screening.

Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors You Can Control

While most patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer are over the age of 50, there has been a noted increase in colorectal cancer cases among younger adults in recent years. The shift towards a younger age at diagnosis seems to be related to lifestyle choices since colorectal cancer is considered hereditary in about 5% of patients. Risk factors you can control include: 

  • Tobacco use
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Being overweight 
  • Not exercising 
  • Vitamin D deficiency 
  • Consuming too much red meat or smoked meats
  • Eating an unhealthy diet that includes an excess of processed foods (i.e., fast food, chips, highly preserved snacks)

Positive lifestyle changes can benefit everyone but are especially helpful if you have multiple risk factors in the list above. Making changes doesn’t have to happen all at once, but do try to remain consistent, incorporating healthier habits one day at a time. Any positive changes you make can help lower your risk status for colorectal cancer. It can also help reduce your risk of developing other types of cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. 

Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors You Can’t Control

You cannot change some factors that increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Still, it’s a good idea to know if you’re at a higher level of risk so you can talk about them with your doctor, including:

  • Personal or family history: The chance of you developing colorectal cancer increases if you or a family member have had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer. 
  • Age: Colon and rectal cancers most commonly affect people age 50 or older. However, it is increasing among people under 50.
  • Assigned gender at birth: Men are slightly more likely to develop colorectal cancer. 
  • Race: Members of the black community are more likely to get and die from colorectal cancer than any other racial group. 
  • Ethnicity: Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of Eastern European descent) are at the highest risk of any ethnic group for developing colorectal cancer.
  • Adenomatous polyps: If you have had multiple polyps of this type, or if they were large, or if they showed signs of precancerous cells (dysplasia), your risk for colon cancer increases.
  • Inherited genetic syndromes: Lynch syndrome (HNPCC) and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer. 
  • Personal history of other diseases: Conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, or type 2 diabetes put you at an increased risk for colorectal cancer.

How to Lower Your Risk of Developing Colorectal Cancer

According to The American Cancer Society, you can help reduce your cancer risk by maintaining a healthy weight, lifestyle, and diet. Some recommendations to get you started include: 

  • Move your body throughout the day. Take regular breaks from prolonged sitting and screen time. 
  • Exercise regularly. Aim for 2 to 5 hours of moderate-level exercise or 1 to 2 hours of intense physical activity per week.
  • Add fiber and nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into your diet.
  • Reduce how often you consume processed meats and foods, sugar-sweetened drinks, and refined grains.

Colorectal Cancer Screening 

Even people who have none of the above risk factors can develop colorectal cancer, so getting screened is essential. Screening is the ideal way to detect both colorectal cancer and polyps that have not yet turned into cancer.

Colonoscopies remain the gold standard when it comes to screening for colorectal cancer. However, individuals considered average-risk may be able to utilize some at-home testing kits, especially before the age of 50. 

When Should You Start Colorectal Cancer Screening? 

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that average-risk individuals start regular colorectal cancer screenings at age 45. Those with a family history or a lifestyle that produces personal risk factors should consider speaking with their doctor by age 30 about possibly getting screened sooner. 

Colorectal cancer screening can save lives. Rather than skip your screenings, aim to schedule them as your primary care physician recommends.

Since early-stage colorectal cancer doesn’t produce symptoms, the only way to detect it is through routine screening. You might, however, experience symptoms if the cancer has progressed. When symptoms do occur, they often include changes in bowel habits, abdominal cramping or pain, and rectal bleeding. While these symptoms could be something other than cancer, it’s best to schedule an appointment with your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

Expert Colorectal Cancer Care in the Albany, New York Area

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, the oncologists at New York Oncology Hematology are here to help. They will create a personalized treatment plan for you based on the type and stage of the colorectal cancer. Request an appointment at a location near you in the Albany area.