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Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors: Who Is at Risk?

5 min read


Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors: Who Is at Risk?

As with all types of cancer, certain risk factors increase the likelihood of colorectal cancer developing. While risk factors like diet, obesity, smoking, and alcohol consumption can be controlled, others, such as your age, personal health history, and family history, cannot. 

Fortunately, the percentage of colorectal cancers that are hereditary or caused by inherited genetic mutations is small (about 5%). This means it is even more important you understand the other factors that can put you at a greater risk for colorectal cancer.

Understanding Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is a term that covers cancers occurring in the colon and rectum. Cancers in these areas begin when healthy cells develop or change and grow out of control. Most colorectal cancers begin as small, noncancerous (benign) clumps of cells called polyps that form on the inside of the colon or the rectum; however, some polyps can become colon cancers. Without regular screening, cancerous polyps go unnoticed as they grow and only become obvious when symptoms are experienced. By this time, the cancer has grown to a point where treatment becomes more challenging. 

Who is At Risk for Developing Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal cancer can affect anyone, including younger people — something that is becoming increasingly common. Still, there are factors that can increase your risk of developing the disease. Some of these are lifestyle-related risk factors you can change, and others are non-lifestyle-related risk factors you cannot. In the video below, Dr. Sneahal Damle, a medical oncologist at Virginia Oncology Associates, discusses colorectal cancer risk factors and ways to reduce your risk of developing this disease.

Lifestyle-related risk factors you can change include:

  • Eating an unhealthy diet 
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Not exercising regularly
  • Being overweight
  • Smoking
  • Vitamin D deficiency 
  • Consuming too much red meat 

Having a better understanding of your potential risks will allow you to take control in regard to making the changes needed to lower your chances of developing the disease. For example, you may consider eating healthier and exercising regularly to lose weight. You'll feel better and reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.

Related Reading: Colorectal Cancer in Young Adults: What You Need to Know

Risk factors not related to lifestyle choices that are out of your control include: 

  • Age: Colorectal cancer is more common in people over the age of 50, though numbers are increasing for those under 50.
  • Race and ethnic background: African Americans have the highest rate of colorectal cancer in the United States. Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of Eastern European descent) are also a high-risk group.
  • Personal or family history: If you or a family member have had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer, your chance of getting colorectal cancer increases. 
  • Personal history of other diseases: An increased risk of colorectal cancer is linked to certain diseases, including ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and type 2 diabetes. If you have been diagnosed with a heredity condition such as Lynch syndrome (HNPCC) and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), you have an increased risk of colorectal cancer. 

What You Can Do to Help Reduce the Risk of Developing Colorectal Cancer

The American Cancer Society has some recommendations for those who would like to reduce their cancer risk. These guidelines include the following:  

  • Incorporating regular exercise into your routine by setting weekly goals for 2 to 5 hours of moderate-level exercise or 1 to 2 hours of intense physical activity.
  • Making movement a daily habit and include breaks if you have prolonged times of sitting and screen activity. 
  • Adding fiber and nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into your diet.
  • Limiting your consumption of processed meats and foods, sugar-sweetened drinks, and refined grains.

Colorectal Cancer Screening Is the Best Way to Be Proactive

Understanding your risk factors is helpful, but the most important thing you can do to protect your health is to be screened. Regular screening is proven to be the best way to monitor your health and detect changes that could be related to colorectal cancer. It is especially important to be screened because symptoms may not appear for a while after the cancer has started growing. 

When colorectal cancer symptoms do occur, they often include changes in bowel habits, abdominal cramping, and rectal bleeding. While many of these symptoms could be related to something other than cancer, it is best to get examined by a doctor rather than ignore them. 

Seek a medical opinion whenever there are health concerns, especially where a family history of colorectal cancer exists, and maintain a regular screening schedule. Regular screening can help monitor your health and detect changes.

When to Start Colorectal Cancer Screening

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that individuals with an average risk of developing colorectal cancer start regular screenings at age 45. Those who have a history of colorectal cancer or other colon or rectal diseases may need to get screened sooner. For more information, read our blog: Colon Cancer Screening Age is Lowered to 45 - How and Why does this Affect You? 

While colonoscopies are considered standard when it comes to screening, there are other options for certain individuals considered at average risk. The goal of all testing is to find colorectal cancer in its earliest stages when treatment is most successful. Talking with your primary care doctor will help you know when to start screening based on your personal risk factors and what type of screening is best for your situation. 

Colorectal Cancer Care Available in Virginia and Eastern North Carolina

If you or a loved one have been newly diagnosed with colorectal cancer, the latest cancer treatments are available locally at Virginia Oncology Associates. Our colorectal cancer doctors work with you to understand your specific diagnosis before recommending treatment. Request an appointment for a consultation with one of our oncologists at our cancer centers located in Chesapeake, Newport News, Norfolk, Suffolk (Harbour View/Obici), Virginia Beach, Williamsburg, Virginia, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina. We also offer second opinions to help you feel comfortable with the treatment plan recommended.