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Factors that may contribute to colorectal cancer

Jessica Gerbes, Nursing Student Intern, and Molly Vetter-Smith, MPH, MEd, RD, State Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension


Colorectal cancer is cancer of the colon or rectum, often known as colon cancer. It is the second leading cause of death from cancer in the U.S. The exact causes of colorectal cancer are not known, but there are known factors that increase a person’s chance of getting colorectal cancer:


  • Age: Colorectal cancer is more likely to occur as people get older. Most people who develop colorectal cancer are over age 50. More than 90 percent of those with colorectal cancer are age 50 or older.
  • Diet: Regularly eating red meat (beef, pork, lamb) or processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, bacon, ham, luncheon meats and other cured meats), as well as cooking meats at very high temperatures (grilling, frying, broiling) are linked to a greater chance of getting colorectal cancer. A diet high in fruits and vegetables may help prevent colorectal cancer.
  • Weight: Research shows people who are obese get colon cancer more often than people of healthy weight, especially men.
  • Polyps: Polyps are benign growths (not cancer) on the inner wall of the colon or rectum that are detected during a colonoscopy (screening tool). They are fairly common in people over age 50. Since most colorectal cancers develop in polyps, removing these growths may prevent colorectal cancer.
  • Familial polyposis: This is a rare, inherited condition in which hundreds of polyps develop in the colon and rectum. Unless this condition is treated, a person who has it is extremely likely to develop colorectal cancer.
  • Personal history: A person who has already had colorectal cancer may develop the disease again.
  • Family history: Close relatives (parents, siblings or children) of a person who has had colorectal cancer are somewhat more likely to develop the cancer themselves, especially if the relative developed the cancer at a young age. If many family members have had colorectal cancer, the chances increase even more.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): IBD, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, are conditions in which the lining of the colon becomes inflamed. People who have these conditions are more likely to develop colorectal cancer.
  • Tobacco and heavy alcohol use: Smokers are more likely to get colorectal cancer than non-smokers. Heavy drinkers are also at a higher risk of getting colorectal cancer. Alcohol use should be limited to no more than two drinks per day for men or one drink per day for women.


Many times, there are no symptoms of polyps or early-stage cancer. If you have any of the risk factors listed above, ask your doctor about when to begin checking for colorectal cancer. Symptoms do occur for some and include bloody stools, stomachaches or cramps that will not go away and unexplained weight loss. Call your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms.


If you are over age 50, you should talk to your doctor about getting screened, and have a colonoscopy done every 10 years or every five years if you have family history of colorectal cancer. If everybody age 50 or older had regular screenings, as many as 60 percent of deaths from colorectal cancer could be prevented.


For more information on colorectal cancer, call the Cancer Information Service, a program of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. or go online to or The Cancer Information Service Heartland serves Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois.


American Cancer Society
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Cancer Institute


This article was adapted from information provided by the National Cancer Institute’s Heartland Cancer Information Service.


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Last update: Wednesday, August 18, 2010