Understanding your colon cancer risk


Colon cancer risk factors are things that increase the chance that you could get cancer. Some risk factors you can control, such as drinking alcohol. Others, such as family history, you cannot control.

The more risk factors you have, the more your risk increases. But it does not mean you will get cancer. Many people with risk factors never get cancer. Other people get colon cancer but do not have any known risk factors.

Learn about your risk and what steps you can take to prevent colon cancer.

Risk Factors

We do not know what causes colon cancer, but we do know some of the things that may increase the risk of getting it, such as:

  • Age. Your risk increases after age 50.
  • You have had colon polyps or colon cancer
  • You have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn
  • Family history of colorectal cancer or polyps in parents, siblings, or children
  • Gene changes (mutations) in certain genes (rare)
  • African American or Ashkenazi Jews (people of Eastern European Jewish descent)
  • Type II diabetes
  • Diet high in red and processed meats
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Heavy alcohol use

How to Reduce Your Risk

Some risk factors are in your control, and some are not. Many of the risk factors above, such as age and family history, cannot be changed. But just because you have risk factors you cannot control does not mean you cannot take steps to lower your risk.

Start by getting colon cancer screenings starting at age 50. You may want to start screening earlier if you have a family history. Screening can help prevent colon cancer, and it is one of the best things you can do to lower your risk.

Certain lifestyle habits also may help lower your risk:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a low-fat diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits
  • Limit red meat and processed meat
  • Get regular exercise
  • Limit alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men
  • DO NOT smoke

You can also have genetic testing done to assess your risk of colon cancer. If you have a strong family history of the disease, talk with your provider about testing.

Low-dose aspirin may be recommended for some people who are at very high risk for colon cancer found with genetic testing. It is NOT recommended for most people because of side effects.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your provider if you:

  • Have questions or concerns about your colon cancer risk
  • Are interested in genetic testing for colon cancer risk
  • Are due for a screening test


American Cancer Society. Colorectal cancer: detailed guide. What are the risk factors for colorectal cancer? Available at: www.cancer.org/cancer/colonandrectumcancer/detailedguide/index. Updated: October 15, 2014. Accessed May 22, 2015.

National Cancer Institute. Colorectal cancer risk assessment screening tool. Available at: www.cancer.gov/colorectalcancerrisk. Updated: November 12, 2014. Accessed May 22, 2015.

National Cancer Institute. Colorectal cancer prevention. Available at: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/prevention/colorectal/Patient/page3. Updated: January 21, 2015. Accessed May 22, 2015.

National Cancer Institute. Colorectal cancer screening. Available at: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/screening/colorectal/Patient/page3. Updated: December 11, 2014. Accessed May 22, 2015.

Review date:
December 07, 2016
Reviewed by:
Christine Zhang, MD, Medical Oncologist, Fresno, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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