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For more information contact:

1-866-442-CANCER (2262)

Cancer Services Program
Bureau of Chronic Disease Control
New York State Department of Health
Riverview Center, Suite 350
Albany, NY 12204-0678
canserv@health.state.ny.us

About colorectal cancer

What should people know about colorectal cancer?

The colon and rectum are part of the body's digestive system. The colon (large intestine) and rectum (the last 7-8 inches of the intestines) absorb water and eliminate waste products from digestion.

Colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon and rectum) is one of the most common cancers among New Yorkers. In New York State, colorectal cancer is one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers and the second leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women combined. Each year, over 4,700 men and almost 4,900 women are diagnosed with colorectal cancer and over 1,600 men and about 1,700 women in New York State die from this disease. It is estimated that one in 20 people will develop colorectal cancer sometime in their life.

Who gets colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer occurs most often in older people. Approximately 60% of people newly diagnosed with colon cancer are age 65 and older, and 90% of all colorectal cancers are diagnosed after age 50. Both men and women get colorectal cancer.

What factors increase risk for developing colorectal cancer?

At this time, the causes of colorectal cancer are not well understood. However, scientists agree that certain factors increase a person's risk of developing this disease. These risk factors include:

  • Age. Increasing age is the most important risk factor for getting colorectal cancer.
  • Family history and hereditary conditions. People with close relatives (parents, brothers/sisters, children) who have had colorectal cancer are at increased risk for the disease. People with certain inherited diseases (familial adenomatous polyposis and hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer) are also more likely to get colorectal cancer.
  • Personal health history. People with a history of colon cancer, intestinal polyps, or inflammatory bowel disease are more likely to get colorectal cancer.
  • Obesity. People who are obese have a greater risk of developing colorectal cancer.
  • Physical inactivity. People who lead an inactive lifestyle are at a greater risk for developing colorectal cancer.
  • Diet. What people eat affects their risk of developing colorectal cancer. Although scientists do not agree on exactly which foods are most important, studies have shown that diets high in red and processed (e.g., bacon, sausage, luncheon meat, hot dogs) meats and/or low in vegetables and fruit may increase risk for colorectal cancer.
  • Other lifestyle factors. Long-term smoking and heavy alcohol consumption also increase a person's risk of getting colorectal cancer.

What other risk factors for colorectal cancer are scientists studying?

Early studies of people exposed to ionizing radiation from atomic bombs showed them to have an increased risk of cancer of the colon, but not the rectum. However, this link was not consistently found in later studies of people exposed to ionizing radiation as part of medical treatment. Some studies also suggest a slightly increased risk of colorectal cancer in workers exposed to high levels of asbestos. Scientists are also studying the relationship between Type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. Additional research is needed to determine the role, if any, these factors may have in the development of colorectal cancer.

What can I do to reduce my chances of getting colorectal cancer?

Some colorectal cancers can be prevented by removing polyps. Polyps are noncancerous growths of tissue that can become cancer if they are not removed. In addition, colorectal cancers are more treatable when found early, before the cancer spreads to other parts of the body. Men and women over the age of 50 who are at average risk for getting colon cancer (do not have the personal or family health history factors listed above), should be screened to increase the chances of preventing colorectal cancer or diagnosing it early. People who have any of the family health or personal risk factors listed above should talk to their health care provider about beginning screening sooner. For additional information on colorectal cancer screening, call the Cancer Services Program at 1-866-442-CANCER (2262) or visit the website at www.health.ny.gov/diseases/cancer/services.

Other ways to reduce risk for colorectal cancer include:

  • Be aware of your family history and discuss any concerns with your health care provider.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Choose a healthy diet to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains and eat less red and processed (e.g., bacon, sausage, luncheon meat, hot dogs) meats. These actions may reduce the risk of developing many types of cancer as well as other diseases.
  • Do not smoke. If you currently smoke, quit. Avoid exposure to second hand smoke. For more information on quitting smoking, visit the NYS Smoker's Quitline at www.nysmokefree.com or call 1-866-NY-QUITS.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • If you have risk factors for colorectal cancer, talk with your health care provider about aspirin use.

How else can I reduce my risk for cancer?

  • Discuss the risks and benefits of medical imaging, such as CT scans, with your health care provider to avoid unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation. This is particularly important for children.
  • Be aware of workplace health and safety rules and follow them.
  • Talk with your health care provider about recommended screenings for other types of cancer.

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