11 Causes & Risk Factors of Colon Cancer You Need to Know

The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 104,610 new cases of colon cancer this year alone. That means that colon cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the United States. Lowering your risk for colon cancer is all about knowing what causes it. 

What Causes Colon Cancer?

There are many factors at play that determine if a person will develop colon cancer. Everything from your biological sex to lifestyle choices can play a role in your personal risk for colon cancer. Here are some of the most common risk factors for colon cancer… 

11. Weight

Your bodyweight plays a major role in your overall health. An unhealthy weight is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and a few different types of cancer. In short, being at a healthy weight is not only important for every aspect of your health, it can also play a role in your risk for colon cancer. 

Why Weight Increases Risk

Weight plays into your risk for colon cancer for two reasons. The first is that an unhealthy weight is a risk factor for conditions that contribute to colon cancer. Diabetes, lack of exercise, and poor diet choices are all colon cancer risk factors that are related to weight, for example. An unhealthy weight also contributes to inflammation that can have adverse effects on the colon’s health, which can lead to cancer. 

A related risk factor for being overweight is a lack of exercise… 

10. Lack of Exercise 

Getting your heart pumping is one of the best things that you can do for your overall health; there’s really nothing like regular exercise for boosting your health. Just like with your weight, diet, and other lifestyle choices, getting the exercise you need can reshape your health, including your likelihood of developing colon cancer. 

Why Lack of Exercise Increases Risk

A lack of exercise lowers your overall health and can lead to an increased risk of colon cancer. This fact is partially because a lack of exercise contributes to other risk factors, including unhealthy weight problems, diabetes, and overall lower health. Trust us; research shows that regular exercise that gets the heart pumping can lower your colon cancer risk. 

Our diets can also determine our ability to exercise and the status of our health in general… 

9. Red Meat

It’s become something of folk wisdom that red meat causes cancer, but the research appears to back up this age old advice. Consuming red meat, especially on a regular basis, is a contributing factor to your cancer risk. 

Why Red Meat Increases Risk

The “why” here is a little tricky to answer. Researchers have determined a link between eating red meat and cancer risk, but they are still working on the reason for this link. Some potential factors include:

  • cooked red meats having higher levels of heterocyclic amines, which are cancer-causing chemicals,
  • the preservatives used to process store-bought red meat, and
  • high levels of N-nitroso compounds in diets with too much red meat. 

While eating too much red meat is a risk factor, not getting enough of the right vitamins can also contribute to your cancer risk… 

8. Vitamin D Shortage

Vitamin D is vital for the body to function healthy. This group of fat-soluble secosteroids regulates our body’s ability to absorb calcium and other essential minerals. There is a strong link between our vitamin D intake and our risk for colon cancer. 

Why a Vitamin D Shortage Increases Risk

Vitamin D plays an important role in slowing the progress of colon cancer. Specifically, research has shown that this vitamin in high doses might have the potential to slow cancer growth rates. Other researchers have demonstrated that individuals with a low vitamin D level are at a significantly higher risk for colon cancer. No matter how you look at it, making sure you have the vitamin D you need can help reduce your colon cancer risk.

When we talk about lowering our cancer rates, there is one easy step to take to significantly lower them all… 

7. Smoking

Smoking is one of the most well-known causes of cancer. While we commonly think of smoking in relation to lung, throat, and mouth cancers, it can also be a risk factor for cancers in other places in the body, including the colon. 

Why Smoking Increases Risk

Smoking introduces carcinogens, or cancer-causing chemicals, into the body. Since smoking is an unnecessary habit, this risk is purely avoidable. Smoking not only increases the risk of getting colon cancer in the first place, it also increases the risk of the cancer returning after a successful operation. If you’re looking for a way to boost your health and lower your cancer risk, quitting smoking is a great first step.  

Much like smoking, drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of colon cancer, too… 

6. Alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol is a major health risk. Like smoking, alcohol is addictive and can contribute to a variety of health problems down the road. One of those increased risks? Developing colon cancer. 

Why Alcohol Increases Risk

When our bodies digest alcohol, they break it down into acetaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. Alcohol can also impede our body’s ability to absorb cancer-slowing nutrients, including vitamin D. The risks for drinking and colon cancer can also depend on what you drink in addition to how much. Beer appears to correlate to a higher risk of colon cancer than wine, for instance. 

While this risk applies to everyone, studies have shown that the risk is slightly greater for one biological sex… 

5. Biological Sex

Your biological sex also plays a role in your colon cancer risk. Namely, cisgender men have a much higher risk of colon cancer than cisgender women. This difference becomes more pronounced as people get older, with the widest gap appearing for people over the age of 80. 

Why Biological Sex Increases Risk

The risk of getting colon cancer is statistically similar between biological sexes. However, the risk is slightly more pronounced for cisgender men than it is for cisgender women. Researchers are still working on determining why this gap exists, but factors like lifestyle and hormones are considered to be part of the difference. 

Another factor that shapes our colon cancer risk is our age… 

4. Age

To be clear, colon cancer can be diagnosed at any stage in life. In fact, younger patients can even be in their teenage years when they are diagnosed with colon cancer. However, as we age, this risk dramatically increases. 

Why Age Increases Risk

The average age of colon cancer diagnosis is between 68 and 72, with the majority of cases being diagnosed after 50. Why does this happen, though? Well, as we age, our bodies tend to face greater health concerns and higher risks for a variety of medical conditions. These events all impact our cancer risk, as does any age-related lifestyle change like lowering exercise and living a sedentary life.

Sometimes, though, having another disease can increase cancer risk… 

3. Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease is one of a few chronic illnesses, along with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, that can contribute to a greater risk for colon cancer.

Why Inflammatory Bowel Disease Increases Risk

There are a few key reasons why these chronic illnesses can contribute to an increased colon cancer risk. The first has to do with inflammation and the chronic stress on the bowels. Over time, that can promote the growth of cancerous cells. The other has to do with treatment. These chronic conditions are often treated by altering the immune system, you see. This treatment can therefore promote carcinogenesis (cancer growth) by suppressing or altering our natural immune functions. 

Another illness that increases your colon cancer risk? Type 2 diabetes… 

2. Type 2 Diabetes 

Type 2 diabetes occurs when our bodies are not responding to insulin the way that they should. Unlike with type 1 diabetes, the body still produces insulin with type 2 diabetes. However, the body just struggles to utilize it and regulate blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes is linked to an increased risk of colon cancer, among other conditions. 

Why Type 2 Diabetes Increases Risk

Type 2 diabetes shares some key risk factors with colon cancer. Being overweight, leading a sedentary lifestyle, and not getting enough exercise, for instance, are all contributing factors to both type 2 diabetes and colon cancer. When these risk factors come together, they can compound the risk of either disease. 

Possibly the single largest factor in determining your risk for colon cancer, though, has less to do with you and more to do with your family… 

1. Family History

Our family medical history can tell us so much about ourselves. Knowing the medical history of your patents, grandparents, and any uncles or aunts can give you a heads-up about your potential medical risks. 

Why Family History Increases Risk

We share important genetic predispositions to a variety of conditions with our biological family members. We are also typically raised in similar environments as our parents, which adds to our shared risk if that environment increases cancer risk. When these factors combine, we can start to see why 1 out of 3 people who are diagnosed with colon cancer have a relative that has also been diagnosed. If you have a family history of colon cancer, you should therefore be aware of other risk factors to lower your chance of being diagnosed with this dangerous disease. 


Colon cancer can be caused by a wide variety of risk factors. Some of them, like family medical history, other diseases, and age are beyond our control. Luckily, risk factors like exercise, diet, and smoking are all things we can actively change about our lives to lower our risk. 

If you are concerned about your colon cancer risk, talk with your doctor about making lifestyle changes that can help bring your overall risk down.

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