New Data: 80% of Americans Don’t Know This Colon Cancer Risk

Updated: Mar. 06, 2024

With rates of colon cancer rising among young people, expert doctors say confusion around risk factors calls for essential education.

When the big 45th birthday milestone creeps onto the calendar, one super fun way to celebrate is to make an appointment for your first colonoscopy. Oh-kay, maybe it’s not so fun for most—but in a way, this is a worthwhile ritual to celebrate another year of life.

A colonoscopy is an explorative procedure that’s one of most powerful tools to detect colon cancer. During a colonoscopy, healthcare providers may also remove concerning or precancerous polyps so these polyps never have the chance to develop into cancer.

While many Americans are aware of this rite-of-passage procedure, according to a new survey, many are not aware of the steps they can take at any age to prevent colon cancer. The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center (OSUCCC) asked 1,000 adults, 18 and older, about the most common risk factors for developing colon cancer. Four out of five survey participants were aware that this type of cancer can have a genetic factor, but were unaware of several other steps they could take now to prevent it. 

Here are the risk factors the survey revealed that most people weren’t aware of:

  • 49% people did not know that drinking alcohol is a risk factor.
  • 42% were unaware that lack of physical activity increased their risk.
  • 38% weren’t ware that obesity play a role.
  • 37% didn’t connect a diet high in fat and processed foods to colon cancer risk.

Some experts say this lack of knowledge is concerning because those without a genetic link to colon cancer will usually have to wait until age 45 to undergo a colonoscopy. That might be too late for some. The National Cancer Institute reports that rates of colon cancer have been rising in people under age 50 for more than 30 years. “We know that screening colonoscopy saves lives by detecting the disease in its earliest and often precancerous state,” said Matthew Kalady, MD, chief of colorectal surgery at the OSUCCC. Dr. Kalady added that a colonoscopy is “not recommended for a person of average risk before age 45.” 

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The survey noted too that Black and Hispanic communities had the least knowledge about what changes to make to prevent colon cancer. These two groups were uniquely affected, with Black people experiencing death more frequently from the disease and the rate of Hispanic people being diagnosed with the disease increasing more than other groups.

The good news is that adopting some or all of these healthy lifestyle habits can reduce your rate of other cancers and health conditions, too. “It’s important for people to understand that many factors contribute to colorectal cancer risk, and it is never too late to make changes to help reduce risk where you have the power to do so. Those changes won’t just impact your cancer risk, they will likely improve your health overall,” Dr. Kalady said.

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Steps experts say you can take now to prevent colon cancer

  • Get regular screenings. Early colon cancer can cause few to no symptoms. Current data suggest most people with normal risk levels will start at 45. If you have issues before then, such as blood in your stool, lower stomach pain, or a concerning change in bathroom habits, you should talk to a healthcare provider about being evaluated sooner. 
  • Adopt a healthy diet. Aim to get the recommended daily fiber intake. Reduce red meat and processed meats and up your intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. 
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases your cancer risk.
  • Get regular exercise. This can help control your weight.
  • Don’t drink to excess. Alcohol is associated with several different types of cancer
  • Don’t smoke. While most people associated smoking with lung cancer, it is also a risk factor for other types, including colon cancer.