A large proportion of colon cancer is preventable with healthy lifestyle choices, even without taking into account the benefits of screening. That's the finding in a new analysis from the large Nurses' Health Study released in print last week in Cancer Causes & Control. The analysis, done by researchers from Stanford and Harvard Universities, calculated the percentage of colon cancers in women that could be attributable to a combination of lifestyle choices that have been found in previous research to be established risk factors for the disease: overweight/obesity, lack of physical activity, alcohol intake, smoking, low multivitamin use, and low calcium intake.
Comparing women who had only one or none of these risk factors with women having two or more, the researchers found that 37 percent of colon cancer cases in women could be avoided through healthy lifestyle choices. This proportion was even higher when aspirin use was considered. Though not a lifestyle choice, per se, long term aspirin use has been shown in many well-designed studies to lower the risk of colon cancer. When aspirin use of just twice a week for six years or more was added to the analysis, the percentage of cancers estimated as preventable rose to 43 percent.
These percentages are quite significant and do not even take into account the further benefit of colon cancer screening, which in addition to catching cancer early can also prevent the disease by finding (and removing) pre-cancerous growths.
Though some other analyses have estimated even greater proportions of cases potentially preventable, these new findings still demonstrate that colon cancer is a very preventable cancer - and with lifestyle choices that many women can follow. Key steps for lowering the risk of colon cancer include:
- Getting screened, beginning at age 50, or earlier if you have a family history. Talk to a doctor about which screening test is right for you and when you should start screening.
- Keeping weight in check
- Not smoking
- Being physically active
- Drinking only moderately, if at all
- Limiting red meat, especially processed meat
- Getting enough calcium and vitamin D
- Considering a multivitamin
Regular aspirin use has also been found to lower the risk of colon cancer, but it has some important risks as well (such as serious bleeding). One recent analysis, though, suggests that regular aspirin use may have overall health benefits for some older adults. However, it's important that anyone considering taking aspirin regularly talk to a doctor about the potential risks and benefits before doing so.
For more on screening and other steps to prevent colon cancer, see 8IGHT WAYS to Prevent Colon Cancer (PDF version).
Top photo: Flickr/thomasletholsen