Colon Cancer: Fact or Fiction?


Dr. Marianne Ritchie

Dr. Marianne Ritchie outside of the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., which was lit up in blue as part of the Blue Lights campaign for Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

By Marianne T. Ritchie, MD, Director of Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center Colon Cancer Screening/Outreach, Director of PINK PLUS Women’s Cancer Screenings Program, and Clinical Associate Professor of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Can you tell fact from fiction when it comes to colon cancer? Learn the truth behind common myths during Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

1. Colon cancer is a man’s disease.

FictionMen and women are at equal risk. We should all be screened.


2. Only a family history of colon cancer increases my risk for colon cancer.

FictionNot just colon cancer, but a family history of colon polyps may also increase your risk and lead to getting screened earlier than age 50. Talk to your doctor.


3. Obesity can increase the risk for colon cancer.

Fact. Obesity increases the risk for at least 13 different cancers including colon, breast, uterine, and esophagus.


4. Smoking only increases the risk for lung cancer.

FictionSmoking also increases the risk for colon cancer and may increase the risk for cancer of the esophagus, cervix, pancreas, stomach, mouth, kidney, and bladder. Women who smoke are at greater risk than men who smoke to develop colon cancer and die from it at an earlier age.


5. Your risk for colon cancer may differ depending on your race/ethnicity.

FactFor instance, African Americans have a 20 percent higher risk for developing colon cancer and a 40 percent higher risk of dying from colon cancer. There is a growing conversation to begin screening all African Americans at age 45 instead of waiting until age 50.


6. Red meat causes colon cancer.

Not alwaysHigh consumption of red meat and/or processed meat may increase your risk. It may be related to cancer-causing substances that form during high-temperature cooking, like grilling. Lean red meats such as pork may be associated with less risk. Overall, it is better to choose fish and poultry. The American Cancer Society reminds us to eat fruits and veggies. High fiber may decrease the risk of colon cancer.


7. If you have no polyps during a colonoscopy, your next colonoscopy can always wait for 10 years.

FictionEven if you have no polyps, but you have a close relative with a history of colon polyps or colon cancer, you may have to have a repeat colonoscopy at five years. If you have no polyps and no family history of colon polyps or colon cancer, your next colonoscopy can wait 10 years.  However, if you have new symptoms (rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, change in bowel movement pattern) you should see your doctor because you may need a repeat colonoscopy sooner than the five- or 10-year interval you were told after your last colonoscopy.


8. People under age 50 do not have to worry about colon cancer.

FictionRecent data suggest that colon cancer is on the rise in young people, including those ranging in ages 20 to 39. If you have symptoms, don’t guess that it’s OK. See your doctor!


9. Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in women.

FictionThe number one cause of cancer death in men and women is lung cancer. The second leading cause of death in women combined is breast cancer. However, the second leading cause of cancer death in men and women combined is colon cancer. In fact, more people die from colon cancer than from breast cancer.


10. Colon cancer risk can increase your risk for other cancers. 

FactIf a woman has colon cancer before age 40 it can increase her risk of uterine and ovarian cancers. Also, uterine cancer before age 50 and ovarian cancer before age 65 (even more before age 50) markedly increase the risk for colon cancer. Get your gynecological screenings, too!


To learn more about colon cancer, visit our website.

Visit our website here to learn more about colonoscopy or call 1-800-JEFF-NOW (1-800-533-3669) to make an appointment. Specialists are available in Center City Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, Bala Cynwyd, and Cherry Hill, N.J.

For more information about colon cancer genetic testing, visit our website here or call Stephanie Winheld, MS, LCGC, Genetic Counselor, at 215-955-1011 to schedule an appointment for a colon cancer risk assessment with Jefferson’s Clinical Cancer Genetics Service.