10 Things You Can Do Today to Cut Colon Cancer Risk

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer for men and women in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, it’s expected that over 100,000 new cases of colon cancer will be diagnosed by the end of 2019. While there’s no way to prevent colon cancer, you can significantly reduce your risk by adding a few healthy habits into your daily routine, says gastroenterologist Anton Bilchik, M.D., at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California. Here are 10 tactics to consider for lowering your cancer risk and improving your overall digestive health.

Move More Often

Increased physical activity throughout the day brings several colon-related benefits. Blood flow and circulation to your gastrointestinal system gets a boost, improving its efficiency so potential carcinogens go through your colon faster. Working out regularly also reduces insulin levels, which can help prevent tumor cell growth, and it improves immune system response, potentially lowering colon cancer risk.

Man doing sit-ups

Work Your Waist

Belly fat appears to be particularly problematic for several cancers including colorectal, according to Filomena Trindade, M.D., of the Institute for Functional Medicine. Fat deposits in this area differ from other parts of the body, says Dr. Trindade, because they can increase inflammation and change your hormone and metabolic activities—which can all raise colorectal cancer risk. Crunches and planks will strengthen your abs, but to burn the fat already there, ramp up your calorie burn with cardio (think: walking or biking). A Duke University study found that 30 minutes of moderate cardio a day barely gained any belly fat over the course of eight months.

Man chopping up assortment of fruits and vegetables

Eat the Rainbow

Dietary factors responsible for 70-90% of colorectal cancer cases, according to research published in Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery. A good step toward making healthy choices is to focus on putting more color in your diet through fruits and vegetables, particularly blue and purple berries, red fruits and vegetables, and dark-colored greens. Not only do these contain cancer-fighting plant chemicals, but they have ample natural fiber, which helps prevent the accumulation of toxins in the digestive tract.

Woman jumping rope

HIIT it!

Increasing everyday activity is helpful, but for an extra dose of prevention, also consider breaking a sweat with some high-intensity interval training (HIIT). A study published in The Journal of Physiology suggests this type of workout — which includes intense and brief recovery periods — might slow colon cancer cell growth. Researchers found that even one HIIT session produced the response, meaning you can lower your cancer risk as soon as you start exercising.

Cigarette burning

Stop Smoking

Smoking is often linked to lung cancer, but it can also play a big part in other cancers as well, including colon cancer. When you smoke, you inhale chemicals that may lead to mutation of healthy cells and development of precancerous polyps. That’s why smokers have a higher risk of developing colon cancer, and according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, are 23 percent more likely to die of the disease or have it return within three years of treatment. Do your whole body a favor and sign up for a cessation program that will help you quit for good.

Limit Alcohol

Drinking alcohol can increase colorectal cancer risk, according to Mark Pochapin, M.D., a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. People need to remember that alcohol is a drug and can have detrimental effects on the body, including the colon, says Dr. Pochapin. Genetic differences can cause alcohol to metabolize differently among individuals, so even moderate drinking could be a risk for some people.

Hot dogs cooking on grill

Cut Back on Red and Processed Meat

Research suggests eating more than 18 ounces of red meat — such as beef, lamb, and pork — per week may increase colorectal cancer risk. Processed meat like bacon, ham, hot dogs, and deli meat can also raise cancer risk, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). Although the cause isn’t yet clear, researchers note that red meat can damage the gut lining, which may promote cancer cell growth. For processed meat, preservatives likely come into play.

Boost Vitamin D

A study done by an international group of researchers found that higher levels of vitamin D is associated with lower risk of colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). The biggest boost of vitamin D comes from sunshine, but it’s important to limit sun exposure to reduce skin cancer risk, so the ACS suggests eating vitamin-D-rich foods such as salmon, tuna, eggs, and mushrooms. The organization also notes that some calcium supplements and multivitamins may already have vitamin D included.

People looking at family photo album

Know Your History

In addition to healthy lifestyle habits, it’s also important to know your family history of colorectal cancer, since that can help you and your doctor decide on a screening schedule. According to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, about 1 in 4 people have a family history of colorectal cancer or noncancerous polyps that could suggest a genetic or hereditary factor and put you at higher risk for the disease.

Doctor holding scope

Get Screened

A colon cancer screening offers the best prevention when it comes to stopping this type of cancer, Dr. Bilchik says. Regular colonoscopies should start at age 50 for those with an average risk of developing colorectal cancer. If you have a family history of this type of cancer, your doctor may recommend you start screening earlier. A colonoscopy can spot polyps — small cell clusters in the colon lining — that may develop into cancer over time. Build screening into your routine health schedule to lower risk.

Elizabeth Millard
Meet Our Writer
Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. Her articles have appeared in SELF, Men’s Health, CNN, MyFitnessPal, and WebMD, and she has worked on patient education materials for Mayo Clinic and UnitedHealth Group. She’s also a registered yoga teacher and organic farmer.