By | February 9, 2017

Colorectal cancer affects the lives of people around the world. In 2013, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 136,119 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with colorectal cancer (CRC) and approximately 51,000 people lost their lives because of the disease. Rather than waiting for the future to unfold, you can help reduce the risk for CRC by understanding how it links to addiction.


What Does the Research Show?

A variety of lifestyle factors or poor choices can impact a lifetime risk for CRC. Most health professionals recognize the link between genetic predisposition and the risk for serious health problems, but recent research, reports Medline Plus, indicates that lifestyle choices can have a protective effect.

For those with a genetic predisposition to CRC, the actual chances of developing cancer may be more than double those in the general population. However, when researchers analyzed the lifetime diagnosis rates of CRC among 1.4 million men with any risk for CRC, including actual diagnoses, the following statistics became evident:

  • A 17 percent lower risk of developing CRC among the top 10 percent of people with the most genetic mutations responsible for cancer. Those who have the most genetic mutations can effectively change how mutations develop into cell immortality. In other words, the impact of mutations becomes minimal, reducing the overall risk of developing CRC.
  • Men between ages 55 and 59 who consume red meat, smoke, drink or engage in drug abuse have the same risk of developing CRC as a comparable person in his mid- to late-60s. This reflects a 29 percent risk of a CRC diagnosis within 25 years.
  • Up to 600 men out of 10,000 may never receive a CRC diagnosis if healthy lifestyle choices are made, which include avoiding alcohol and illicit substances. In other words, 94 percent of those with the highest risk of CRC could eliminate their chances of developing cancer.

The statistics were surprising. Many researchers assumed genetic risk would outweigh the potential benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Because people cannot alter their genetic structure, changing the risk for CRC appeared impossible.


How Does Avoiding Addiction Reduce CRC Risk?

Addiction causes physical and psychological changes to the brain and body. Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), prolonged or short-term abuse of substances can increase the risk for chronic health conditions, including cancers. In fact, engaging in substance abuse even once increases this risk. Specifically, the most common substances associated with a higher cancer risk include nicotine and alcohol.


1. Addiction May Increase the Risk of Contracting Illnesses Related to CRC.

A person suffering from addiction may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sexual behavior and additional substance abuse.

For example, the human papilloma virus (HPV) has been linked to cancers among men and women.

Although much debate concerns the risk of cervical cancer, HPV has been known to cause pre-cancerous genital warts around the anus and genitals of both men and women, asserts the American Cancer Society (ACS). In other words, engaging in protected sexual intercourse is essential to preventing HPV infection and the subsequent risk for CRC.


2. A Healthy Diet, Devoid of Alcohol, Decreases Damage to Colorectal Tissue.

Alcohol impairs a person’s decisions, including the decision to eat healthy foods. In recent years, many different foods have been found to be possible carcinogens. While evidence to fully support these claims is lacking, the overwhelming majority of accredited organizations, including the ACS and CDC, identify a healthy diet, free from heavy drinking, as critical in decreasing cancer risk. Essentially, a balanced diet helps the colon continue to function properly.

Eating plenty of fiber is another aspect of a healthy diet affecting CRC risk. Currently, recommendations for lowering CRC risk include eating whole grains, fruits and a variety of vegetables. However, alcohol is also a heavy source of calories. Per Dr. Steven J. Atlas of Harvard Health Publications, alcohol is a source of purely unneeded calories. This means that every drink could add up to an unhealthy body mass index (BMI).


3. Addiction Takes Time, Inhibiting Exercise Regimens.

Take a moment to think of someone who smokes tobacco. Regardless of how many times he or she exercises, the underlying health problems caused by tobacco continue to exist. Consequently, the possible health benefits of exercise may be outweighed by the consumption of tobacco. Similarly, those who have an addiction to drugs or alcohol may be less likely to actively pursue exercise opportunities.

For example, a person suffering from alcoholism will often spend time thinking about alcohol, drinking or being ill from alcohol, such as suffering hangovers. Thus, the physical amount of time needed to exercise may simply not exist due to the addiction.

Final Thoughts

Addiction is a mental illness, and like any mental illness, it will impact a person’s ability to live a healthy, fulfilling life. While many discussions on addiction focus solely on the abuse of illicit substances, the conversation must become more focused on all addictions and their associated risk for CRC and other cancers.

As a program director, training supervisor or other clinical executive, you have the power to change the tone of the conversation. You need to understand how sobriety lowers cancer risk. Moreover, you can leverage this recent research to help those who believe that genetic predisposition determines the ultimate risk for CRC. In other words, you need to help those suffering from addiction minimize their chances of developing cancer by transitioning to a healthy lifestyle today.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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