Blue social awareness ribbon tied in a bow around a woman's index finger. The blue ribbon represents various causes including colon cancer.
Stop colon cancer in its tracks, early, with lifestyle changes and preventive screening. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Did you know your lifestyle choices could tip the scale for whether or not you experience cancer in your lifetime?

It’s true.

No one purposefully acts to increase their cancer risk, however, not everyone knows which lifestyle choices will make a negative—or positive—difference.

Take colon cancer, for instance. Colon cancer risk is affected by lifestyle habits and can be detected early if people are aware of their risk, get timely screenings and watch for early symptoms.

Studies show there are ways we can proactively reduce our chances of developing colorectal cancer.

People who exercise daily, eat a diet high in fiber, fruits and vegetables, take adequate vitamins B6 and D, and eat fish regularly (not deep fried) have a lower relative risk of getting colorectal cancer.

People who smoke, drink more than two alcohol drinks per day and are obese have a higher risk. Hormone replacement therapy, statins and daily aspirin are also shown to be associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer.

Many women I have cared for never thought they would get colorectal cancer. Some women think it is an older person’s disease or that only men are at risk.


Risk factors for colorectal cancer

• 50 years or older

• HPV infection

• Family history of colorectal cancer

• History of Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis

• Diet high in saturated fats and low in fiber

• Diet low in vitamins D and B complex

• More than one alcoholic drink per day

• Lack of exercise

• Obesity

How cancer develops

Cancer happens when cells start to grow out of control either from exposure to a cancer-causing agent like cigarette smoke, or damage in the process of growth control like with BRCA gene mutations.

If there is both exposure and a gene mutation, the risk is even higher. When cells grow out of control, they group together in a lump or mass and then can break free of the organ boundaries, and spread.

The earlier a cancer is caught, the easier it is to treat. Once cancer spreads, it is much harder to cure.

A cautionary tale

A patient I’ll call Susan never thought colon cancer would affect her. In her case, there was no family history, no inflammatory bowel disease, and she lived a healthy lifestyle. She is active, rarely drinks alcohol, eats low fat and takes her vitamins.

But Susan had symptoms. She ignored those symptoms, thinking it must be a yeast infection, constipation, or simply not important. Like many of us, she was so busy caring for her family she didn’t make the time to get checked out.

Her pain worsened, the discharge worsened and her bowel habits started to change more dramatically. She finally had no choice but to pursue testing. Susan learned she had Stage 4, metastatic colorectal cancer.

Susan underwent aggressive surgery and chemotherapy with a good result. Her story is one that should make us all pause and remember to seek care when something does not seem right. Another takeaway: Get your colonoscopy.

Be proactive

Donald Kim, MD, is a Spectrum Health Medical Group colorectal surgeon and cares for patients with colorectal cancer.

“Colorectal cancer is not only treatable but preventable with proper colon cancer screening,” Dr. Kim said. “Unfortunately, most patients present without symptoms, so it’s essential that you have your recommended screening colonoscopy.”

If you have risk factors for colorectal cancer, it is important you not only get an early screening, but also follow a healthy lifestyle to reduce your chances of getting cancer.

Risk factors include being 50 or over (45 and over if African American), have a first degree relative with colorectal cancer, have a family history of colorectal cancer or genetic syndromes such as familial polyposis syndrome or Lynch syndrome. It also matters if you have a personal history of colon polyps or inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s colitis or ulcerative colitis, or if you have had abdominal radiation.

The symptoms of colorectal cancer depend on the location of the tumor. They include a change in bowel habits such as new constipation or diarrhea, consistent new bloating and gas, rectal bleeding or dark tarry stools, a feeling of incomplete emptying, or persistent cramps and pain. Another sign of cancer is iron-deficiency anemia.