Finding out the causes of colon cancer is on everyone’s radar. Few things scare people as much as being diagnosed with cancer. But, except for a small number of less common cancers, almost all of them are heavily dependent on your lifestyle choices.
Sometimes the choices are easy, like eating processed foods and avoiding vegetables like Ebola. Others come as more of a surprise, like antibiotic use.
Make no mistake—whether you are aware of the risk factors or not, these do increase your risk. Make the right choices and your risk of all cancers drops dramatically.
This article series is all about educating you on the causes of colon cancer. Whether you make the changes or not is up to you.
Causes of Colon Cancer; Why It’s So Darn Important
The beauty about not taking good care of yourself is that every aspect of your physiology goes to hell in a handbasket. There’s no need to worry about focusing on a single organ system or medical specialty.
Am I going to have a heart attack? Are my bones too brittle? Will I get cancer??
Instead, just assume that everything bad is happening already.
See–No need to needlessly pester your cardiologist or worry about your GI doc finding something. It’s already brewing.
On the plus side, this is why positive lifestyle choices can be so profound. They don’t just improve what you are trying to improve (like weight loss, lower cholesterol levels, etc..); improve everything.
Massive bang for your buck.
In this next section you’ll see that all chronic diseases are linked—your body systems do not function in a vacuum.
Can’t I Just Rely on Colonoscopy to Prevent Colon Cancer?
The first thing I need to clarify is that mainstream medicine’s idea of cancer actually “cancer prevention.” In NO situation is what mainstream medicine considers prevention actually preventing anything. Early detection would be the correct term.
I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure. In no scenario does this fit more than with cancer. Just ask anyone in the middle of chemo and radiation.
Colonoscopy is in a slightly different category than mammography and PSA testing because your GI doc can remove small polyps during the procedure that would become a problem in the future. But this does not address the reason why the abnormal growth happened in the first place.
Unless you understand the reasons why that happened, all you’ll do is be thankful that you “dodged a bullet” and continue on with your merry little lifestyle without thinking that you need to make changes.
What happens when we rely entirely on colonoscopy for “preventing” colorectal cancer?
One study did highlight how good colonoscopy is at reducing the diagnosis of colorectal cancers, but there was a catch.
And a strong one.
Here’s what they found in the study:
- Over 35 years, rates of colorectal cancers decreased by 0.92% (while this IS a decrease, given what we know about how to prevent this cancer, it is an embarrassingly low change).
- This decline was ONLY seen in patients age 50 years or older.
- For those 20-49 years old, rates of colon and / or rectal cancers increased (depends on age bracket).
If these trends don’t change, by 2030 the rates will jump 90.0% for colon cancer and 124.2% for rectal cancer for patients 20-34 years. These same rates are expected to increase by 27.7% for colon and 46.0% for rectal cancer for patients 35-49 years.
While I wouldn’t call this a doomsday prediction, it certainly should raise some eyebrows.
If I had to put these predictions into a sentence, I would say that the benefit of colorectal screening is slowly being drowned out by the effects of our toxic lifestyles on increasing the risk of cancer.
Is Colonoscopy Overused?
To add to the confusion of whether colonoscopy is beneficial, the next question is if colonoscopy is being done more often than it should be.
I’m going to go out on a limb to suggest that no one enjoys the “day before prep” for a colonoscopy.
Rather, we have them done because we are fearful of not finding a cancer early enough. If the colonoscopy is clear, we follow our physicians’ recommendations as to when the next one should be done.
Our doctors are, of course, following the recommendations determined from the medical literature, right?
Not even close.
The recommendations for those with a clean colonoscopy is to wait 10 years before the next one. But when researchers looked at a group of Medicare patients, repeat colonoscopies were done too soon in almost 43% of patients.
This is a tremendous waste of resources.
As I mentioned, there is a slight chance that early can detection saves lives. But we also need to understand that false positives, which occur with a degree of regularity with any cancer screening, come with their own set of problems.
Then there are dangers with the procedure itself (anesthesia, biopsy, bowel perforation, etc..) or the stress of a potentially dire diagnosis creating additional testing and costs. With any type of screening, there is balance that needs to be obtained. We cannot afford to test every single person every single year and identify potential problems that may never develop into real problems.
The health care system here in the US is already massively expensive without this added burden.
Prevention coupled with appropriate screening. There is a long list of things that we cause colon cancer. The more we do on prevention, the less important the screenings become. The poorer our lifestyles, the more important the screenings become. Personally, I would rather prevent something in the first place instead of hoping to catch it early enough to make a difference.
With all of this in mind, let’s get on with what to do about this monster known as Colon Cancer.
General Risk Factors for Colon Cancer; Prediabetes
The development of diabetes is the one thing that all of us fight against. We are so well designed to fight off starvation that our bodies go overboard in this protective state. The opposite of starvation is diabetes.
I always get frustrated when a new patient comes into my office and proudly states that their doctor is “keeping an eye on” his or her prediabetes.
“Keeping an eye on” –as if there is nothing to be worried about until you crosses that magical barrier of blood sugar to be called diabetic.
If you are prediabetic (too much weight in the abdominal region, ANY lipid / cholesterol problem, PCOS, high blood pressure, gout, sleep apnea, etc..) then understand that your single goal should be to make lifestyle changes to change the direction your health is on.
Anything less is signing an early death warrant.
Yes. 534% higher risk.
As if knowing your liver is shot wasn’t bad enough.
General Risk Factors for Colon Cancer; Heart Disease
A big problem with the way the body works and the way medicine is set up is that our bodies do not respect the artificial barriers of medical specialties.
The sad fact is that the risks for all chronic diseases track together. If you have one, you’ve got them ALL, just not always to the point of getting a named disease or condition.
The study before linked prediabetes with a much greater risk of developing colon cancer; this study did the reverse—it looked at how many patients with colon masses found during colonoscopy had heart disease.
You wake up from anesthesia and it’s bad enough news to find out that your doctor found cancerous masses. Just to add insult, you then find out that you also have heart blockages.
Turns out that patients who had cancerous masses removed were 96% more likely to have coronary arteries that were more than 50% blocked.
This is why, when I cover the lifestyle choices that prevent colon cancer, you will probably have heard about many of them in the context of preventing heart disease.
Causes of Colon Cancer: Choices That Increase Risk
Let’s get something straight right off the bat.
Genetics play a role in colon cancer, but even the strongest genetic risks can be overcome with the right lifestyle choices.
These choices begin very early in life. This first part is designed to identify some of these risks so that you can understand better how to prevent colon cancer in yourself or your loved ones.
While it’s way tougher once the barn door is open, the same choices that prevent colorectal cancer in the first place will also increase your chance of survival once you’ve been diagnosed.
Causes of Colon Cancer: Early in Life
There is mounting evidence that chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease begin in our early years, and far earlier than we ever thought.
Colorectal cancer is no different.
Childhood Dairy Intake Causes Colon Cancer
For those of you still brainwashed into believing that “milk does a body good” you’d better sit down.
Would it change your mind if you knew that adolescent dairy intake spiked the risk of colon cancer 65 years later?
To be specific, kids who had the highest intake of dairy had almost TRIPLE of risk for colon cancer as an adult.
And this was from dairy cows 65 years ago–free from antibiotics, growth hormones and the overwhelming stress of life on a commercial dairy.
How the heck is it that dairy recommendations have infiltrated EVERY public health recommendation from Federal down to county when the evidence for it is weak at best?
The only answer is that the dairy industry’s money wields massive influence and ability to brainwash an entire country. (Just in case you’d like to read more on this topic, you can get my “Evils of Dairy” eBook by clicking here)
Prevent Colon Cancer as a Teen
Most people who have been diagnosed with colon cancer will ask their doctors what can be done to help the outcome.
If the discussion on risk factors doesn’t come up with your oncologist, it would be impossible for you to identify behaviors in your children will increase later risk of that same cancer.
Cancer is what we refer to as a “long latency” disease.
In other words, you don’t light up your first cigarette today and get lung cancer tomorrow. It takes decades for the abuse to your body to manifest into the chronic diseases of today.
(This is why chronic diseases like heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer are so hard to overcome with short-term approaches like drugs)
There are countless examples of childhood behaviors that have later impacts on chronic disease. Just a few include:
- Soy intake as a teen cuts breast cancer rates as an adult by more than half
- Sunlight exposure as a teen cuts prostate cancer rates in half
- Sunlight exposure as a teen cuts breast cancer rates by 35%
This is, of course, merely the short list. There is clearly enough evidence to say that critical points in cancer development occur during our youth, likely starting as early as conception (if not before).
Teenage behaviors can go a long way to prevent colon cancer. In particular:
- The highest intakes of vitamin A lowered risk 18%
- Those with the highest vegetable intake lowered risk 19%
- Highest intakes of calcium lowered risk 17%
- Highest intakes of vitamin C 17%
- Fruit 16%
- Milk 22%
- Higher total fat increased risk 15%
- Red meat increased risk 31%
- Processed meat 24%
I do have to add that, while this study did find that dairy intake lowered colon cancer risk 22%, it may very well be that the protective effect may have been related to the calcium in the dairy or the replacement of dairy in the diet for something more toxic like soda.
Overall, though, you should clearly see that decisions that our teens make can have a massive impact on their long-term health. What lifestyle habits are you teaching your kids?
Causes of Colon Cancer: Adult Diet Choices
The choices you make about the food you put in (or don’t put in) your mouth can be the most powerful tools when it comes to preventing or causing colon cancer. This section highlights just how strong this link can be.
Causes of Colon Cancer: Dietary Fats
It is strongly established that the right types of fats in our diet prevent most chronic diseases, including colon cancer. On the flip side, the wrong types of fats will increase the risk of all these same diseases.
One study that looked at the type of fats inside red blood cells (a good way to look at what types of fats are running around in your bloodstream) and whether is was a risk factor of colon cancer.
Here’s what was found:
- Higher levels of DHA (an omega-3 fat found in wild caught fish) was linked to a 64% lower risk of colon cancer
- High PUFAs (polyunsaturated fats—think nuts) was linked to a whopping 85% lower risk.
- Palmitic acid (a saturated fat found in meats, cheeses, butter, and dairy products) were risk factors of colon cancer, increasing risk 646%.
- Those with the highest levels of saturated fatty acids AND the lowest levels of PUFAs had massive 945% higher risk factors of colon cancer.
By making the wrong dietary choices, you could be increasing your risk of colon cancer by almost 1,000%. ONE THOUSAND PERCENT.
Seeing results like this on how to prevent colon cancer gets me that much more frustrated with our national cancer organizations. This is information that absolutely needs to be shared.
Instead, they remain silent, instead pushing to collect ever more money to find a “cure” for a very preventable disease.
Causes of Colon Cancer: Red Meat Factors
There has always been some degree of disagreement when it comes to the connection between red meat as a risk factor of colon cancer. Like most things when it comes to good health, the answer and the connections are not that simple.
I remember having a “discussion” a decade or so ago with a representative from the AZ Beef Council who absolutely refused to acknowledge that red meat was a heart disease and colon cancer risk facto.
Not that she had a biased position (I could imagine that her tenure as an employee would probably be pretty short without this biased opinion).
Now, more than a decade later, it is clear that an animal-based diet high in animal based proteins (the magic number seems to be around 20%–so keep animal proteins, including dairy, under 20% of your protein intake).
But the story is not that straightforward.
The quality of the meat plays a role. Organic, grass fed beef that is grass fed throughout the entire life cycle will have a better effect on our health. Wild game falls into the same category. And for the record, pork is NOT the “other white meat.”
(Really…when was the last time you looked at bacon and thought “white meat”…?)
Another factor at play is that adding spices to red meat can increase the nutritional value of the meat and lower the potential damage to our health.
Turns out that what you eat with your red meat is yet another factor.
A telomere is kind of like a wick on the end of the DNA of our cells. When this wick burns down, that’s it. The cell is no more.
The longer the telomere on the end of our DNA, the longer that cell is going to live and, by extension, the longer you are going to live. (Click here to read more on telomeres)
Looking at telomeres can give researchers an idea of how much lifestyle damage has occurred to cells. More damage = greater risk of colon cancer.
Turns out that if you add resistant starch to a diet of red meat, the telomeres are protected. Much like the prior example of using spices to protect our bodies.
Resistant starch is a type of dietary fiber that feeds the growth of good bacteria in the gut, so this completely makes sense. I covered the different types of fibers in my article on gut health that can be read by clicking here.
This says two things. First, red meat clearly plays some role in the development of colon cancer. Two, the addition of resistant starch (think of foods like beans, whole grains and basmati rice) protected the telomeres in the colon cells.
Causes of Colon Cancer: General Diet Patterns that Lead to Aggressive Cancer
We understand that diet strongly drives how much inflammation our bodies have. I’ve just covered how much our dietary choices of fat are risk factors for colon cancer.
In the human body, I consider inflammation as a giant domino setup.
To the left is a large number of dominos all aiming towards one single gold domino. To the right expands out more dominos.
Knock down one of the left dominos, and ultimately the gold domino goes. Knock the gold domino down and you start the cascade of other dominos to the right that we know as inflammation.
This gold domino has a name: NF kappa B. NFkB is a key player in inflammation. Inflammation is a key player in all chronic diseases, colon cancer included.
So, if a dietary pattern increases the levels of NFkB, it would make sense that colon cancer rates would also be higher.
- Higher intakes of animal protein, refined carbohydrates, saturated fat, omega-6 fatty acids and alcohol led to higher levels of NFkB.
- This same dietary pattern was also linked to more aggressive colon cancers.
- The opposite happened with higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, vitamin E, flavonoids, isoflavones, β-carotene and selenium.
- A diet higher in omega-6 fatty acids and lower in omega-3 fats led to higher NFkB levels and more aggressive tumors.
- The reverse (higher omega-3 / lower omega-6) led to lower NFkB and less aggressive tumors.
Studies like this prove one thing—diet is your MOST powerful player if you want to prevent colon cancer as well as the most powerful tool to make sure you make it out alive if you’re diagnosed with colon cancer.
Later in this article I’ll cover the specifics on what you should be eating or should be avoiding to prevent colon cancer.
Causes of Colon Cancer: Other Factors to Consider
While diet is massively important to prevent colon cancer, not all risk factors of colon cancer are diet-related.
In this next section I’ll cover other risk factors of colon cancer that are not related to diet. Some of these are going to be obvious, others will knock your proverbial socks off.
Causes of Colon Cancer: Antibiotics
That hodgepodge of bacteria growing in our large intestine. AKA The gut microbiome.
Few things in medicine become more complicated the more we learn, but the relationship between the bacteria in our gut and our health fits into this category.
Once we developed new techniques to identify bacteria growing in our gut that couldn’t be grown in a petri dish our knowledge base exploded.
Links between our gut microbiome and diabetes, obesity, anxiety, depression and cancer are now well-established. More links are identified on pretty much a daily basis.
Risk factors of colon cancer absolutely include problems with the gut microbiome. And why wouldn’t it? These bacteria live as close to the lining of your gut as anything can. The products and toxins they produce can have direct effects.
In one study, researchers looked at bacterial biofilms (a collection of specific types of bacteria lining the gut) that have been shown to cause problems in the gut such as inflammatory bowel disease to see if these same biofilms could be causes of colon cancer.
Here’s what they found when they looked at these invasive, dangerous groupings of bacteria in the colon:
- Found in 89% of right-sided colon tumors but only 12% of left-sided tumors.
- All patients with biofilm-positive tumors had these biofilms growing in other areas of the colon as well.
- Bacterial biofilms were linked with changes in the levels of molecules known as risk factors of colon cancer (lower epithelial cell E-cadherin and higher epithelial cell IL-6 and Stat3 activation).
To put it simple, right sided colon cancer is very, very strongly linked to the types of bacteria growing in the GI tract.
If you’d like to make an effort to work on building a healthy microbiome, take some time to read through my article on this topic that can be read by clicking here.
Causes of Colon Cancer: Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress. That scenario where your body has lost the battle between damage from oxidants and protection from antioxidants.
Think of a poor-quality diet combined with lots of bad choices like gnawing on lead paint windowsills, stressing like Porky Pig and deliberately avoiding getting closer than 1.5 miles to a gym.
Oxidative stress is linked to pretty much every chronic disease you can think of, including heart disease. In fact, despite the widespread belief that high cholesterol causes heart disease, this is not true.
It is well-accepted that LDL cholesterol does not do damage to us until it gets damaged from oxidative stress (referred to as ox-LDL or oxysterols).
One study looked at ox-LDL levels in the body and the risk of colon cancer. Researchers found that, those people with the highest ox-LDL levels had 3 TIMES the risk of being diagnosed with colon cancer.
Causes of Colon Cancer: Hormone Replacement Therapy
Hormone replacement therapy has not been used as frequently as in the past, since clinical trials found that HRT increased the risk of heart disease and breast cancer.
But it’s still used.
Consider that estrogen is a proliferative hormone. It causes cells to divide. This is why estrogen increases the risk of breast cancer.
As well as colon cancer.
In one study, National Cancer Institute researchers found that women under 62 who had colon polyps removed were more likely to have future polyps if they were on hormone replacement therapy.
Causes of Colon Cancer: Smoking, Folate and MTHFR status
I am rarely a fan of the “genetic basis” of diseases. Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer. Genetics play a role, but our lifestyle choices can almost completely get rid of an increased genetic risk.
There are times, however, when knowing your genetics can help with the decisions you make.
One of the most-researched genetic factors in humans is the Methylene Tetrahydrofolate Reductase (MTHFR) enzyme. This enzyme changes folic acid from supplements or food into its active form. Active folic acid is very important for cells to divide properly.
If someone has a “lazy” copy of the MTHFR gene, he or she will not make as much of the active form of folic acid. This situation has been linked to many different chronic conditions like heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Luckily, if you have the lazy copy (or copies) of MTHFR, a higher intake of folic acid can go a long way towards eliminating the risk of chronic disease. But, on the flip side, if you combine a lazy enzyme with low folic acid, the results can be disastrous.
- Smokers with low folate and one copy of the lazy enzyme had a 870 higher risk of high-risk colon tumors when compared with non-smokers and a normal MTHFR enzyme.
- Smokers with high folate and a normal MTHFR enzyme had a 990% higher risk.
This means that there ARE times when knowing some basics about your genetic makeup, like whether you have a normal or lazy MTHFR, can help. This test can be run by most lab testing companies, or you can go for the full deal using someplace like 23andMe (you can get test kits on Amazon).
If you have a normal MTHFR enzyme, then extra folic acid may be a bad idea. On the completely opposite side, if you have the lazy enzyme, too little folic acid can be a bad thing as well.
And, of course, smoking is ALWAYS bad for you.
Causes of Colon Cancer: Gastric Bypass Surgeries
Gastric banding. Gastric sleeve. Roux-en-Y bypass. There are in increasing number of procedures available that fall under the category of bariatric surgery. This is also increasing coverage for the procedures by insurance if certain criteria are met. Roux-en-Y is the most common form of surgery used.
But are these procedures safe?
Let’s get one thing on the table right now: ANY time you alter digestion, be it with drugs that suppress acid production (Nexium, Prilosec, etc..) or with surgery there is a price to be paid. That price can be severe, with the end consequence being death.
Shortly after gastric bypass surgery, there are the immediate positive changes that happen like the reversal of diabetes and weight loss.
But what about the long-term?
For starters, there are long-term nutrient deficiencies that will plague the bariatric surgery patient for the REST of their lives.
Far too often, the patient puts the weight back on because they never learned the right way to be eating for their body in the first place.
But what about more dangerous long-term consequences?
Research had already found that cancer markers in the rectum are present are present 6 months after the surgery, but we didn’t know if these cancer markers persisted in the long-term or were only temporary. So researchers looked at what happened to the cells lining the colon 3 years after gastric bypass surgery.
Do the markers improve after 6 months?
Not even close.
There remains, 3 years after the procedure, a 4,000% increase in the tumor marker macrophage migration inhibitory factor in the rectum.
Yes—that number is correct. A 4,000% increase.
It is still too early to determine what this does to the risk of colorectal cancer. But, if I were to place my bets, I’d bet that the rates of colorectal cancer in these patients are going to be much, much higher.
So much for the short-term benefits.
If you are reading this with concern because you have already had gastric bypass surgery (which cannot be un-done), then it does not mean you are doomed to get colon cancer. What this means is that you need to be that much more dedicated to changing all the other causes of colon cancer mentioned in this article.
Now that you’ve pretty much drew up your last will and testament after learning of all the things that increase your risk of colon cancer, in the next part of this article I will cover all the powerful choices you can make to virtually eliminate your risk.