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Can your sedentary lifestyle cause colon cancer?

By Roy De Souza
May 09, 2019 10:30 IST
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People who are inactive are more likely to develop colon cancer, says Roy De Souza.

Can sitting too long cause colon cancer?

Every cancer diagnosis comes with its own story.

In almost every case, a transformation in the life of the patient and family accompanies the diagnosis.

In my own life, a very close family member was diagnosed with colon cancer at a young age.

What is colon cancer?

Colon cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the large intestine or colon, the final part of the digestive tract.

Estimates vary as to whether colorectal cancer is 5 per cent inherited or as much as 35% inherited, but there is agreement that the food you eat is mostly responsible for causing colon cancer.

In the US in 2018, it was estimated that 51,020 deaths (27,640 men and 23,380 women) were attributed to colorectal cancer.

If the same level of colon cancer exists here in India, about 2 lakh people could be dying of it every year.

Until recently colorectal cancer has been a disease of developed nations. Which leads to theories about the role of diet, especially processed foods, white bread and animal fats as a cause.

In the US, they are now screening people aged 50 and above which has helped bring down the overall incidence of colon cancer.

A similar data from the West points to a rise in deaths among younger people.

In some countries the incidence of colon cancer in young people is as high as 35%.

What causes colon cancer?

Every cell in our bodies contains a master set of instructions. These instructions are in the cell’s DNA and the DNA is comprised of about 20,000 genes.

There’s a known process of how normal cells divide into two cells. But when something goes wrong during the division into two cells one of the genes can mutate (go wrong).

If the gene that mutates causes the cell to grow fast, you have cancer. As time goes on, the cancer cells divide and divide and divide and become more and more, forming a tumor.

Unfortunately, tumor cells are often more aggressive than normal cells, and they keep dividing and invading normal tissues. Because they divide so fast more and more mutations build up in them which then makes them even worse.

Some cancerous cells can travel to other parts of the body through blood and form metastases, or secondary tumors there.

So the goal is to catch cancer cells early and remove them or stop them from growing.

With colon cancer the early mutations usually cause growths called polyps. The only way to prevent colon cancer is to remove them. 

While it may be hard to point a finger at one single cause, here are some typical habits and reasons that increase the risk of you getting colon cancer.

Low-fibre, high-fat diet

As countries develop, they move towards the typical western diet which is low in fibre and high in fat and calories.

This is a major health risk as it leads to weight gain, cholestrol and a wide range of health problems.

Red meat and processed meat

Some studies have found an increased risk of colon cancer in people who indulge in diet high in red meat and processed meat like sausages.

If you have been eating too much meat, it is time to watch out and cut down your consumption.

Fresh meat is likely to be safer.

A sedentary lifestyle

People who are inactive are more likely to develop colon cancer.

A sedentary lifestyle can lead to diabetes and insulin resistance which further increases the risk.


People who are overweight have an increased risk of colon cancer and an increased risk of dying of their cancer compared to people with normal weight.

How to prevent yourself

Until scientists find out the precise cellular mechanism that causes the genes to mutate and how to turn it off, the best thing to do is hedge your bets with prevention:

Eat fruits and vegetables 

A balanced diet would include fruits like berries and citrus fruits like oranges and lemon which are full of fibre and anti-oxidants.

Coloured veggies like beetroot and carrot are also good for your stomach. Ensure that your diet contains enough vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants.

Avoid foods grown with pesticides

I know this is tough, but good green vegetables and fruit maybe covered in toxic pesticides that you can’t see and could cause cancer when they get down into your colon.

The best way is to wash your fruits and veggies before you eat or cook them.

If you can afford it switch to organically grown fruits and vegetables that use less or zero pesticides.

Avoid fruit juices

Recent research has shown that eating fruits is healthy, but if you are having it in the form of juices, you are mostly drinking sugary water mix which goes straight through the stomach into the colon and increases the risk colon cancer.

Avoid aerated drinks

Most cola companies and packed juices add processed ingredients including sugar which may increase your risk of colon cancer.

Eat whole grains

Switch to brown bread over white bread. Try unpolished red/brown rice too.

When you eat out at a restaurant, opt for rotis made from whole grains instead of naan or food products made from processed grains.

Eat the right nuts 

Tree nuts are shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer.

You must include cashew nuts, walnuts, almonds and other nuts that grow on trees. Avoid peanuts. 

Drink coffee

Drinking coffee is shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer. But remember to have it with less or zero sugar.

Cut down alcohol

Drink alcohol in moderation.

If you choose to drink alcohol, limit the amount of alcohol you drink to no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.

Quit smoking

If you smoke, you're raising the risk of several cancers, including colon cancer.

If you have trouble quitting, consult a physician or seek the help of an expert.

Exercise. Be active

Exercise most days of the week.

Get at least 30 minutes of exercise when you can.

It doesn’t have to be up to Olympic standards, but it should raise your heart rate.

If you've been inactive, start slowly and build up gradually to 30 minutes.

Start with brisk walking and gradually switch to jogging, yoga or any other form of workout to stay active.

Maintain a healthy weight

If your weight is healthy, work to maintain it by combining a healthy diet with regular exercise.

If you need to lose weight, ask your doctor about healthy ways to achieve your goal.

There is not a single major cause of colorectal cancer. However if you eat clean food and maintain a healthy schedule, you may be able to prevent it.

Roy De Souza is a researcher and serial entrepreneur who has developed healthcare apps like nULTA that aims to improve the lives of people.

 Lead image -- a still from Tumhari Sulu -- published for representational purposes only.

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