Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and the second most common cause of cancer death.1 Scientists estimate that about half of all bowel cancer cases in the UK could be prevented through healthy lifestyle choices.
What are the risk factors?
- Being overweight or obese
- Lack of physical activity
- Diets low in fibre
- Diets high in red and processed meat
- Drinking alcohol
- Age - risk increases as you get older
- Family history of bowel cancer
- Personal history of polyps or inflammatory bowel disease
If these risk factors apply to someone, it does not mean that they will develop bowel cancer – it just means that their risk may be higher than average. But there are things people can do to reduce their risk.
How to reduce the risk of bowel cancer
Be a healthy weight
Studies have shown that storing too much fat encourages the body to produce ‘growth hormones’. Having high levels of these hormones is linked to a higher risk of cancer. Body fat also stimulates a general inflammatory response, which may contribute to the development of several cancers. For most adults, measuring BMI is a good way of checking if they are a healthy weight.
Being physically active helps people to avoid gaining weight. It also helps food to move through the digestive system quicker, and keeps our immune system and hormone levels healthy, all of which can reduce the risk of cancer developing, including in the colon.
Eating more wholegrains and pulses can reduce cancer risk. These foods contain fibre and help keep the digestive system healthy – 12 per cent of bowel cancer cases could be prevented if everyone just ate enough fibre.
There is some evidence to show that drinking milk decreases the risk of bowel cancer. This is likely to be partly due to milk containing calcium, although there may be other components in milk that might also play a role.
Eating processed meat increases bowel cancer risk, as does eating too much red meat. One possible reason for this is that the compound that gives red meat its colour, haem, may damage the lining of the bowel. When meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives, cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) can be formed. These substances can damage cells in the body, leading to the development of cancer. Download our factsheet, A Closer Look at Red Meat.
Cut down on alcohol
There’s strong evidence that drinking alcohol increases bowel cancer risk. Scientists are still researching how alcohol can lead to cancer. One theory is that alcohol can directly damage our DNA, increasing our risk of cancer.
Smoking increases the risk of bowel cancer. People who want to quit can call the free Smokefree National Helpline on 0300 123 1044. Many GP surgeries also run smoking cessation clinics.
What about screening?
The majority of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated if they are found early – that’s why it’s important that people take part in NHS bowel screening when invited. Visit www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk to find out about bowel cancer symptoms, screening and treatment.
- World Cancer Research Fund. Reducing Your Risk of Bowel Cancer [online]. 2015. Available at: www.wcrf-uk.org/uk/preventing-cancer/cancer-types/ reducing-your-risk-bowel-cancer