Women's Health Matters

Text Size
Jump to body content

Prevention

In the vast majority of cases, colorectal cancer can be prevented.

Significant research in the past 20 years has focused on the controllable risk factors for colorectal cancer.

We now know that many aspects of a woman's diet and lifestyle, and exposure to certain occupational and environmental carcinogens increase her risk of developing the disease.

Early detection is also an important part of reducing deaths from colorectal cancer. If you are over age 50, talk to your doctor about your risks, and about what screening tests are appropriate for you. If your doctor does find polyps, have them removed promptly, to reduce the risk of cancer.

Exercise

Exercise and an active lifestyle can help reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

In 1997, a large study of American nurses showed that the risk of colorectal cancer was lower in women who exercised at least three hours a week.

Participate in some form of physical activity at least three times a week. Try activities like:

  • swimming
  • biking
  • jogging
  • tennis
  • walking

Even a modest increase in activity levels may help. Small changes, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or walking instead of driving to the store, can improve your health.

Canada's Physical Activity Guide to Healthy Active Living has lots of tips on how to make physical activity part of your daily life. Read about it on the Public Health Agency of Canada website.

Diet

Being overweight or obese increases a person’s risk of developing colorectal cancer. Studies also show that a person’s risk increases when they consume large amounts of processed or red meat and dietary fat, and that it may decrease when the diet includes more fibre. Fibre is found in:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • whole grain cereals and breads

Try to eat these foods more often, reduce the amount of red meat you eat, and maintain a healthy body weight.

Folate, which is found in green leafy vegetables, in dried beans and in cereals and grain products fortified with folic acid, may help protect the lining of the colon and rectum against the development of colorectal cancer. Some women choose to take folate supplements (usually sold in combination with other B vitamins) to increase their folate levels. Discuss this with your doctor.

Calcium may also help protect both women and men from colorectal cancer. Research is still needed in this area but a large study of women, called the Iowa Women's Health Study, showed a reduced risk of colorectal cancer in those women with the highest intake of calcium. Foods that contain high levels of calcium include dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese; fish (particularly sardines); tofu; calcium-fortified orange juice, soy and rice beverages; and broccoli. Some women also choose to take calcium supplements.

It has also been suggested that vitamin D, which you can get from the sun or in a multivitamin, may reduce a person’s risk of developing colorectal cancer, although the evidence is not conclusive.

Smoking

Smoking increases a person's risk of colorectal cancer. One study of Finnish women and men showed a significant increase in the risk of colorectal cancer when comparing those who smoked one pack a day to those who never smoked. Smokers who stop can reduce their risk.

Alcohol Consumption

People who drink large amounts of alcohol may have increased rates of colorectal cancer, although this has been most clearly demonstrated in men. One study of American women showed an increased risk in women who had more than 11 drinks a week. Limiting the amount of alcohol you consume may reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Aspirin and Hormone Replacement Therapy

Several other substances, including Aspirin and hormone replacement therapy (HRT), may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. Studies that observed large groups of women suggest that both these substances may reduce a woman's risk of colorectal cancer; however, more research is needed to define their role in prevention.

Aspirin
The Nurses Health Study showed that women who took Aspirin consistently for a 20-year period had a lower risk of colorectal cancer. Regular Aspirin use, however, may also damage the lining of the stomach and the intestine. For now, Aspirin is not generally recommended as a preventive measure for colorectal cancer.

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)

Hormone replacement therapy is used to reduce the symptoms of menopause. It may also reduce the risk of other conditions including colorectal cancer. Several studies have now shown that HRT reduces a woman's risk of colorectal cancer. This protection is strongest for women who are currently using, or have recently used, HRT. However, several large studies have shown that there are serious long-term risks associated with hormone therapy. HRT is also associated with an increased risk of breast and endometrial cancer. Women should discuss the risks and benefits of HRT with their doctors, when considering HRT.

Occupational and Environmental Carcinogens

Some studies have found that being exposed to certain occupational and environmental carcinogens increases a person’s risk for colorectal cancers. Specifically, pesticides, dyes and hydrazine, an ingredient found in rocket fuel, have been linked to colon cancer; and metals, metal-working fluids, PCBs and pesticides have been linked to rectal cancer.

Avoiding exposure to cancer-causing materials at work and at home is another important way of preventing colorectal cancer.

Early detection is also an important part of reducing deaths from
colorectal cancer. If you are over age 50, talk to your doctor about
your risks, and about what screening tests are appropriate for you. If
your doctor does find polyps, have them removed promptly, to reduce the
risk of cancer.

Jump to top page

Discussion Groups

Share knowledge and talk about your health-related experiences with other women.

General Health Discussion Forum


Read personal stories

Read stories from other women and learn from their experiences.

Your stories


How you can help

Visit Women's College Hospital Foundation

  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital