Colon Cancer Facts

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the US. The American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates for the number of colorectal cancer cases in the US in 2012 are:

  • 103,170 new cases of colon cancer
  • 40,290 new cases of rectal cancer

Over a lifetime, the risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 20 or 5.1%. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the US for men and women combined. It is expected to cause about 51,690 deaths in 2012. Screening and removal of polyps during screening exams has decreased the death rate from colon cancer. Additionally, treatments for colon cancer have advanced. There are now more than 1 million survivors of colorectal cancer in the US.

Cancer of the colon or rectum is a big risk for aging Americans

  • The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 143,460 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2012.
  • Approximately 51,690 people will die of colorectal cancer in 2012.
  • Increased incidence above age 40
  • Highest incidence between ages 50 - 75

Colorectal cancer is associated with

  • Diet low in fiber, high in fat, high in red meats (beef, lamb, liver) and processed meats (hot dogs and some luncheon meats)
  • Obesity
  • Hereditary factors
  • Colon polyp leading to cancer
  • Long term exposure to environmental or occupational toxins

Risk factors for developing colon cancer include

(A risk factor is anything that increases the likelihood of getting a disease.)

  • Over age 40
  • Diet low in fiber, high in fat , high in red meats and processed meats
  • Past history of breast or gynecologic cancer
  • Family history of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps
  • Personal history of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps
  • Past history of inflammatory disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease)
  • Physical inactivity-people that do not get at least a moderate amount of exercise are at increased risk of developing the disease.
  • Obesity – while obesity raises the risk in both men and women, the risk is stronger in men
  • Racial and ethnic background – African Americans have the highest risk of all racial groups. Jews of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) have the highest risk of any ethnic group in the work. Several gene mutations have been found in this group. The most common of these DNA changes (called the l1307K APC mutation) is present in about 6% of American Jews.
  • Type 2 Diabetes – people with type 2 (usually non-insulin dependent) diabetes have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.
  • Smoking – smoking is a well known cause of lunch cancer, but some of the cancer- causing substances in smoke dissolve into saliva and if swallowed, can cause digestive system cancers, like colorectal cancer.
  • Alcohol use – colon cancer is linked to heavy alcohol use. Moderate use is considered to be 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women.

Preventative measures and early diagnosis save lives

  • Adopt a low fat diet. Reduce your fat intake to less than 30 percent of calories.
  • Increase your fiber intake to 20-35 grams per day; include a variety of vegetables, natural fruits, whole grain products or a fiber supplement.
  • Consider taking calcium supplements and increasing consumption of foods with high levels of vitamins C, A, and D.
  • Avoid becoming overweight.
  • Consume alcoholic beverages in moderation, if at all.
  • Minimize consumption of salt-cured, pickled, and smoked foods.
  • Follow colorectal cancer screening guidelines.

See your doctor for

  • Rectal exam every year beginning at age 40
  • Stool blood test every year beginning at age 40
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years beginning at 50

Earlier screening test if family members developed cancer at a young age.

Prevention Tips

There are several ways to reduce the risk of developing colon cancer. One way is to have benign polyps removed via colonoscopy. Though not definitely proven, there are many studies and increasing evidence that there are many ways to reduce the risk of developing colon cancer.

  • Follow colorectal cancer screening guidelines beginning at age 50 or sooner depending on your family history or symptoms. While colorectal cancer screening is increasing, most Americans are still not screened for colon cancer on a regular basis
  • Talk to your family members to find out if there is any history of colon cancer or polyps.
  • Eat a diet that is low in total fat. Most dietary fat is found in animal products, so increase your consumption of lean meat, poultry without the skin, fish and low- or non- fat dairy products and decrease your consumption of fatty and cured meat, fried foods and higher fat treats.
  • Eat more fiber! Fiber is found in whole grain products, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. There is very little fiber in refined or processed foods such as white breads or pastas, pulp free juices and non-whole grain cereals. A food is regarded as a good source of fiber if it contains 5 grams of fiber or more per serving. Current recommendations for daily intake are as follows:

Age 50 and younger

Age 51 and older


38 grams

30 grams


25 grams

21 grams

  • There is some evidence that obesity may be linked to the development of some cancers, so maintaining a healthy weight is recommended. Use good portion control by filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, keeping meat and starch portions small and almost fist-sized.
  • Don’t be a “couch potato;” get at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days. Choose activities that you enjoy and that you can do regularly. Some people prefer activities that fit into their daily routine, like gardening or taking extra trips up and down stairs. Others prefer a regular exercise program, such as a physical activity program at their worksite. The important thing is to try to be physically active each day.
  • Decrease alcohol consumption.