March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

6 mins read

For improving your health, few things are more effective than eating healthy, exercising regularly and not smoking. But while all of these behaviors can help you maintain a healthy weight and improve cardiovascular health, did you know they also help reduce the risk of colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer remains one of the most common types of cancer in the U.S. In 2020, there were an estimated 104,610 new cases of colon cancer and 43,340 cases of rectal cancer, according to Lifetime Risk of Developing Cancer: Approximately 4.2 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer at some point during their lifetime, based on 2015–2017 data.

Colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in the U.S when men and women are combined, claiming the lives of more than 50,000 Americans each year. 

It is important for everyone to understand the genetic factors and behaviors that increase the risk of colorectal cancer, and what they can do to reduce the risk.

While both colon and rectal cancers can be referred to as colorectal cancer, there is a difference. Cancer that begins in the colon, the first four to five feet of the large intestine, is referred to as colon cancer. Cancer that begins in the rectum, the last several inches of the large intestine leading to the anus, is called rectal cancer.

Colorectal cancers typically start as a growth of tissue called a polyp. While some types of polyps are benign, a particular type called an adenoma can develop into cancer. This is why regular screening is important. 

Colorectal cancer screening (colonoscopy) can find precancerous polyps so they can be removed before becoming cancerous. Screening also helps find colorectal cancer at an early stage, when there are more treatment options and a better chance of being cured. 

If the cancer is diagnosed at a localized stage, the survival rate is 90%. If the cancer has spread to surrounding tissues or organs and/or the regional lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate is 71%. If colon cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, the 5-year survival rate is 14%.

There are a number of risk factors that are associated with the development of colorectal cancer. Being aware of these will help you and your doctor develop a plan to reduce risks through lifestyle modifications and regular colonoscopic screenings. Some of those risk factors include:

Age: Although colorectal cancer can occur at any age, the chances of developing the disease increase substantially after age 50. 

Racial/ethnic background: African Americans have the highest incidence of this disease in the U.S. Some other ethnic groups also have an increased risk of colorectal cancer. 

Family history: The potential for developing colorectal cancer increases if members of your family have had it. There are also several inherited conditions, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), that can increase your risk. 

Eating habits: Diets high in red and processed meats can increase your risk for colorectal cancer. Reduce your chances by increasing your intake of foods high in fiber, including vegetables, fruits and whole grains. 

Lack of exercise: Individuals who are obese, with a sedentary lifestyle and little physical activity have an increased potential for colorectal cancer. But studies have found the risk of colorectal cancer is lowered with increasing levels of physical activity. More vigorous or strenuous exercise may lower the risk further. 

Smoking: Cancer-causing compounds associated with smoking can increase the chances of colorectal cancer. Quitting smoking not only reduces your risk of this and several other types of cancer, but cardiovascular disease too. Your doctor has several resources to help you quit. 

Excess alcohol: Although the mechanisms are not fully understood, reducing alcohol consumption can reduce colorectal cancer risk, especially in men. Reducing alcohol intake can also help you maintain healthy weight.

Not having regular screenings: Based on your family history and behavioral risks, your doctor will determine how often you should have a colonoscopy. Follow that schedule to ensure any potential problems are detected early.

Like most types of cancer, being aware of risk factors, being screened at the appropriate age and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can reduce your chances of developing colorectal cancer. For more information about this disease, as well as healthy nutrition tips and recipes, visit or the sources listed below. 


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