Are You at Risk?

Colon Cancer Can Start With No Symptoms

1-in-20-320x210Yes, everyone is at risk for colon cancer.

Colon cancer occurs most often in men and women age 50 and older. The risk increases with age, but you do not have to be 50 or older to get the disease.

Precancerous polyps and early-stage colon cancer don’t always cause symptoms. This means that someone could have polyps or colon cancer and not know it. That’s why having a screening test is so important.

Are You at High Risk? Your risk for colon cancer may be higher than average if:

  • You or a close relative have had colon polyps or cancer.
  • You have inflammatory bowel disease.
  • You have a genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer.

People at high risk for colon cancer may need earlier or more frequent tests than other people. Talk to your doctor about when to begin screening and how often you should be tested. Regular screening is important for everyone.  Almost 75% of all new cases of colon cancer occur in people with no symptoms or no family history.

If you experience symptoms and are below the age of 50, ask to be screened. About one in 10 people diagnosed with colon cancer are under the age of 50.

Risk factors associated with colon cancer include family history of colon cancer, diet low in vegetables, excessive alcohol use, tobacco use, obesity, and sedentary “inactive” lifestyle. But it can also impact healthy people without a family history.

Risk Factors


Several lifestyle-related factors have been linked to colorectal cancer. In fact, the links between diet, weight, and exercise and colorectal cancer risk are some of the strongest for any type of cancer.

Certain types of diets

A diet that is high in red meats (such as beef, pork, lamb, or liver) and processed meats (hot dogs and some luncheon meats) can increase colon cancer risk. Cooking meats at very high temperatures (frying, broiling, or grilling) creates chemicals that might increase cancer risk, but it’s not clear how much this might contribute to an increase in colon cancer risk.

Diets high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains have been linked with a decreased risk of colon cancer, but fiber supplements do not seem to help. It’s not clear if other dietary components (for example, certain types of fats) affect colon cancer risk.

Physical inactivity

If you are not physically active, you have a greater chance of developing colon cancer. Increasing activity may help reduce your risk.


If you are very overweight, your risk of developing and dying from colon cancer is increased. Obesity raises the risk of colon cancer in both men and women, but the link seems to be stronger in men.


Long-term smokers are more likely than non-smokers to develop and die from colon cancer. Smoking is a well-known cause of lung cancer, but it is also linked to other cancers, like colon.

Heavy alcohol use

Colon cancer has been linked to the heavy use of alcohol. At least some of this may be due to the fact that heavy alcohol users tend to have low levels of folic acid in the body. Still, alcohol use should be limited to no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women.

Other risk factors:

  • Age
  • Personal or family history of colon polyps or colon cancer
  • Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease
  • Family history of colon cancer or colon polyps
  • Inherited syndromes
    • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
    • Hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (HNPCC)
    • Other cancers
  • Experiencing symptoms

Racial and ethnic background

  • African Americans have the highest colon cancer incidence and mortality rates of all racial groups in the United States. The reasons for this are not yet understood.
  • Jews of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) have one of the highest colon cancer risks of any ethnic group in the world. Several gene mutations leading to an increased risk of colorectal cancer have been found in this group.

Type 2 diabetes

People with type 2 (usually non-insulin dependent) diabetes have an increased risk of developing colon cancer. Both type 2 diabetes and colon cancer share some of the same risk factors (such as excess weight). But even after taking these factors into account, people with type 2 diabetes still have an increased risk. They also tend to have a less favorable prognosis (outlook) after diagnosis.

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