When most people think about cancer in women, breast and ovarian cancer are usually the first two that come to mind. Many are actually surprised to learn that colorectal (colon) cancer is the third most prevalent cancer among women (behind breast and lung) and the second most deadly cancer in women. With over 60,000 cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed annually in American women, we really need to shine more of a light on this highly preventable and easily diagnosed disease.
Let’s be honest though. While no one really likes to discuss cancer in general, there is a particular aversion to talking about colorectal cancer. So, why all of the stigma when it comes to colorectal cancer and colorectal health? Much of it has to do with the fact that colonoscopies, while more popular than Congress according to recent polls, are still not on people’s top 10 list of favorite things to do. Add to this the fact that discussions about what our bowels may or may not be doing just isn’t something that most people consider polite conversation and you have our current situation.
For women in particular, this lack of colorectal health awareness is further compounded by the fact that medical research frequently focuses on men and the fact that women have a tendency of putting their own healthcare needs behind those of everyone else in their household.
So, let’s talk about colorectal cancer, ladies.
We have already established that colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in women and the second most common cause of cancer deaths in women. The good news is that there are things that we all can do to reduce our risk of developing colorectal cancer and there are tons of highly effective screening options available to aid in early diagnosis.
Controllable Risk Factors
So, what are some things that we can do to reduce our risk of colorectal cancer? Well folks, there is no easy way around it, there is no magical pill and there is no quick fix. Lifestyle always comes heavily into play in matters of health and prevention, and colorectal cancer is no different. There are certain lifestyle changes that every woman (and man) should consider for overall health and thankfully many of these also improve colorectal health.
- Increase activity and exercise: Obesity and sedentary lifestyles have both been shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer. I’m not advocating that we all become marathon runners or spend four hours a day in the gym, in this case little changes actually make big differences. Spending as little as thirty minutes a day participating in mild to moderate physical activity (i.e. good brisk walks) have been shown to improve overall health and colorectal health.
- Smoking cessation: I know that this point is hammered home at every doctor’s visit (or at least it should be) but call me the Dr. Carpenter because I’m going to hammer it a little bit more! The number of diseases that smoking is directly responsible for or contributes to is gargantuan and you can add colorectal cancer to that extensive list. Studies have shown an up to 60% risk increase in colorectal cancer among smokers.
- Limiting alcohol intake: Now, I know a lot of you probably just thought about turning your computers off but bear in mind that I said limiting not stopping. Common convention has long held that two alcoholic drinks per day is the acceptable upper limit before there is an increase in the risk of developing colorectal cancer. This number however was derived from studies looking at men and subsequent research has suggested that this number is more like one alcoholic drink per day for women. This doesn’t mean that women can’t ever have more than one drink on a given day, it just means that more than one drink per day on a regular basis is not advisable.
- Diet also plays a role: Like many other disease states, a diet rich in red and processed meats as well as deep fried and fatty foods also increases the risk of colorectal cancer. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever eat any of these foods, it just means that we need to limit overall intake of these types of foods. Now I just warned you about deep fried and fatty foods and here I am about to tell you to avoid grilled meats as well! Grilled meats and specifically those that are grilled to a char also increase the risk of all GI cancers including colorectal cancer. Once again however, it’s an issue of balance. Grilled meats in general are fine we just need to limit consumption of overly grilled/charred meats to no more than a few times per grilling season. On the flipside eat as many fruits, vegetables, grains and fibers as you want as all of these have been shown to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.