March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a time when healthcare providers and people in the media work to raise awareness of this terrible – yet highly preventable – disease. We provided an overview of colorectal cancer last year, including signs, symptoms, and diagnostic screenings covered by Medicare. This year, we take a closer look at colorectal cancer’s risk factors and how certain lifestyle changes may help lower your risk.
What Causes Colorectal Cancer?
Out-of-control cell growth causes all cancers. What researchers still don’t know is what causes this growth in the first place. Some people are genetically predisposed to certain diseases or conditions through inherited gene mutations. There are also acquired gene mutations that are not passed through families. However, when it comes to cancer, the greatest risk factors are certain behaviors and conditions.
What Are Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors?
Colorectal cancer risk factors fall into two main categories: those you can change and those you cannot change.
The first type are sometimes called lifestyle risk factors. You can lower your risk by making strategic lifestyle changes, such as altering your diet or exercising more.
Unfortunately, there are also risk factors that no amount of diet or exercise can help. Age and family history are prime examples of risk factors you cannot change.
Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors You Can Change
Most cancers have been linked to certain lifestyle choices, but few are as strong as the link between colorectal cancer and lifestyle.
Obesity, or even just carrying extra weight around your waistline, significantly increases your risk of colorectal cancer. This is particularly true for men, although women are also susceptible.
Being overweight may be one of the greatest risk factors because the patient typically has at least one other common risk factor: Poor diet and/or lack of exercise. Eating a diet high in processed meats (pepperoni, salami, hot dogs, etc.) and red meats (beef, lamb, liver, pork), raises your risk of colorectal cancer. Researchers are still trying to determine whether cooking meat at a high temperature is also dangerous.
Lack of physical activity also increases your risk. And, combined with poor diet, it raises your risk of obesity as well.
Scientists have also linked colorectal cancer to smoking tobacco and alcohol intake.
Lifestyle Changes to Lower Your Risk of Colorectal Cancer
If any of these risk factors apply to you, talk to your doctor about healthy lifestyle changes. This is particularly important if you plan to make significant changes to diet or exercise. Your doctor is more likely to know what level of activity your body can safely handle. He or she can also advise on dietary changes to support your overall health.
If you drink alcohol, keep it within healthy ranges. Moderate alcohol use is defined as no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. See our article on alcohol awareness to learn what constitutes one drink. And, as always, if you smoke tobacco, stop. Smoking raises your risk for a wide array of diseases and chronic health conditions.
Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors You Can’t Change
Now we look at the risk factors that no amount of healthy lifestyle changes can control.
Age is probably the greatest risk factor over which you have no control. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over 90 percent of colorectal cancer diagnoses occur in patients over age 50. Since getting older is our goal (it sure beats the alternative!), this risk factor is unavoidable.
Your medical history may also increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer. Your family history can also add to your risk, particularly “first degree” relatives (parents, siblings, and offspring). Each of the following conditions, whether in your personal or family medical history, raises your colorectal cancer risk.
- Colorectal polyps: Also known as adenomatous polyps, or adenomas, risk is even greater if the polyps were large, showed dysplasia, or there were many of them.
- Colorectal cancer: Even if the cancer was removed, your risk of new cancers in the colon or rectum is higher, particularly if your first cancer occurred when you were younger than 45.
- Inflammatory bowel disease: Also known as IBD, this includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Patients may develop dysplasia, which are cells that look abnormal but are not cancerous. However, they may become cancerous. IBD patients are encouraged to undergo frequent colorectal cancer screenings.
Please note that, although a family history of colorectal cancer increases risk, over two-thirds of patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer have no family history. Your risk increases if more than one first-degree family member had colorectal cancer, or if they were diagnosed before turning 45.
Race is a risk factor for a number of diseases. In the United States, African Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer. They are also more likely to die from the disease. Worldwide, Jewish people from Eastern Europe have the highest risk. In both scenarios, doctors do not know why.
Type 2 diabetes
Your colorectal cancer risk increases if you have type 2 diabetes. This isn’t surprising, since obesity and lack of exercise are risk factors for both diseases. However, researchers have found that diabetic patients have an increased risk even when they are at a healthy weight. In addition, their mortality rates are higher.
Does Medicare Cover Genetic Testing?
Although one of the more rare causes of colorectal cancer, gene mutations may increase your risk. For example, the APC gene is a tumor suppressor gene that helps regulate cell growth. Mutations in the APC gene lead to out-of-control cell growth, which eventually leads to polyps in the colon. In time, these nearly always turn cancerous.
Genetic testing helps reveal these mutations. To aid early diagnosis, Medicare began covering genetic testing about a year ago. There are, of course, stipulations. Mainly, the test must receive FDA approval.
If you have questions about your Medicare coverage, call us toll-free at 855-350-8101 to speak to a licensed agent.
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