8 Ways to Prevent Colon Cancer

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Colon cancer occurs when cells in the lining of the colon (large intestine) grow out of control. Colon cancer isn’t talked about as much as some other cancers, but it should be. It’s the third most common cancer in the United States, with around 150,000 people diagnosed each year. And a growing number of these cancers are being found in younger adults under the age of 50. Colon cancer is often referred to as colorectal cancer, which describes cancers of the colon and rectum.

But there’s another key fact about colon cancer: We can prevent it. 75 percent of all cases could be avoided by things you can do.

Use these eight tips as a guide to lowering your risk. Start with one or two and build from there.

It’s your health. Take control.

1. Get Screened

Getting regular screening tests for colon cancer is the single best way to protect yourself from the disease. It can catch cancer early, when it’s easiest to treat. It can also help prevent the disease by finding abnormal growths called polyps that can turn into cancer. There are a number of effective screening tests for colon cancer. Some are easy to do but need to be done more often. Others are more involved but need to be done less often. Which test you have depends on your medical history and what you prefer. A doctor can help you decide.

Most people begin getting tested at age 45. People with a family history or other risk factors may begin testing sooner and may get tested more often. If you have a family history of colon cancer, genetic testing could provide important information about your risk. Speak with your doctor about whether genetic testing could be right for you.

Common recommended screening options

If a test finds something suspicious, a follow-up colonoscopy is usually needed.


What: Test that uses a small flexible camera to look at the full length of the inside of the colon. You are sedated for the test, so you’ll need a ride home after. If the exam finds colon polyps or other suspicious growths, they can be removed during the test.

How often: every 10 years


Home Stool Tests

These tests are quick and easy. You collect a sample of your stool at home, which is then sent to a lab to be tested.

FIT (Fecal Immunochemical Test) or FOBT (Fecal Occult Blood Test)

What: Test that looks for rectal bleeding, which can be a sign of cancer.
How often: every year


Stool DNA

What: Test that looks for hidden blood plus DNA changes from cancer or polyp cells.
How often: every 3 years


Virtual colonoscopy and barium enema are also effective screening tests. Talk to a doctor about your options.

2. Maintain a Healthy Weight

Except for smoking, nothing else raises the overall risk of cancer more than being overweight. At least 13 different cancers have been linked to weight gain and obesity, including colon cancer. If you’ve put on weight, try first to stop gaining weight – which has health benefits by itself. Then, for a bigger health boost, slowly work to lose some pounds.

3. Don’t Smoke

It hardly needs saying anymore, but not smoking is the single best thing you can do for your health. Smoking causes 15 different cancers, including colon cancer. Plus, it increases the risk of other serious diseases like heart disease, stroke and lung problems. If you smoke, quitting has real benefits, which start shortly after your last cigarette. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (In Illinois, 1-866-QUITYES) or visit smokefree.gov for help. Talking to a doctor can double your chances of success.

4. Be Physically Active

It’s hard to beat regular exercise. It lowers the risk of many serious diseases, including colon cancer, and provides a good mental boost. Any amount of movement is better than none. That said, it’s good to try for around 30 minutes or more of moderate activity each day. Choose things you enjoy, like brisk walking, cycling, dancing or gardening.

5. Limit alcohol – Zero is best

Even low amounts of alcohol can raise the risk for colorectal cancer and breast cancer. And with the other risks of alcohol, not drinking is the overall best choice for your health.

6. Limit Red Meat, Especially Processed Meat

Eating too much red meat – like steak, beef and pork – increases the risk of colon cancer. And processed meats – like bacon, sausage and bologna – raise risk even more. Try to eat no more than three servings each week. Less is even better.

7. Get Enough Calcium and Vitamin D

There is good evidence that getting enough calcium and vitamin D can help protect against colon cancer. Try for 1000 to 1200 mg per day of calcium and about 1000 IU per day of vitamin D.

Good sources of calcium include low-fat dairy, fortified plant-based milks, nuts, beans and greens. Good sources of vitamin D include eggs, fatty fish (like tuna) and fortified dairy products. Supplements can help fill gaps but should not take the place of real food or a healthy diet.

8. Eat more whole grains and fiber

Eating a diet rich in whole grains and fiber can lower the risk of colon cancer. But most people don’t get enough of either. A general goal is to try to eat three or more servings of whole grains every day. You should also aim for 22 to 34 grams of fiber every day, based on your sex and age. Focus on fruits, veggies, beans and whole-grain foods, like 100% whole-wheat bread and whole-grain cereals and pasta.

Other Important Risk Factors for Colon Cancer

Though colon cancer can be prevented, there are still a number of important risk factors that people can’t control. Knowing which ones apply to you can help you understand your risk and take steps to lower it. If you feel you’re at high risk, talk to your doctor.

These can increase colon cancer risk:

  • Family history of colon cancer
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

Online Resources

Your Disease Risk
Zuum Health Tracker
8ight Ways to Prevent Cancer
NIH Body Mass Index Calculator
National Cancer Institute
American Cancer Society
CDC–Family Health History