Red Meat and Colon Cancer


Published: 07 June 2015

It’s surprising to learn that bowel cancer, or colorectal cancer as it’s more accurately known, is the second most deadly form of cancer in Australia. In 2012 alone, over 12,500 Australians were diagnosed with this disease, resulting in 4,000 deaths. As you would expect, lung cancer remains the number one cause of cancer with roughly 8,000 deaths annually. However, public policy has long educated us about the dangers of smoking. Is it now time for health literacy campaigns to also shine a light on the impact our diets are having on our bodies as well?

3D render of a polyp being removed from the bowel.

3D render of a polyp being removed from the bowel.

Colorectal cancer is caused by what are known as polyps forming on the lining of the large intestines. If left untreated these polyps ultimately develop into cancer. As with most diseases, there are a number of things we can do to reduce our risk factors. Early detection is also key, with more than 90% of those people detected early on in the disease process ultimately being cured. So why does it remain a huge killer?

The Research

A report published by the World Cancer Research Fund suggested that individuals should limit their intake of red meat and, more generally, avoid the consumption of any processed meat whatsoever. This is because the consumption of a high intake of red meat or processed meat increases an individual’s risk of not only cancer, but also cardiovascular disease. A European study also reached similar findings; people who ate more red meat (>5 ounces per day or 140g) were a third more likely to develop colorectal cancer than those who ate minimal amounts. There has however been limited evidence of other meats, such as poultry and fish, affecting the incidence of colorectal cancer in the same way.

It’s important to note that meat is not the only cause of colorectal cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research predicts that if people were to stay lean, exercise, be active, and eat less than 18 ounces of red meat a week—in addition to following their other recommendations such as limiting alcohol and tobacco consumption—then at least half of all colorectal cancers could be prevented.


An example of a national bowel cancer screening campaign poster.

The more people who know about bowel cancer screening, the better. NBCSP

Screening is already quite effective at identifying polyps, allowing for them to be removed well before they potentially become cancerous. Public health initiatives such as the national bowel cancer screening program is one way to encourage regular screening. The program will ensure that Australians aged between 50-74 will receive a screening kit every 2 years. The initiative aims to prevent the deaths of 90,000 Australians from colorectal cancer over the next 40 years.

As nurses, what can we do to stop colorectal cancer diagnosis and ultimately prevent death? Of course, educating both our patients and ourselves is key, but we also need to support them to make lifestyle changes, and undertake early screening for colorectal cancer on a more regular basis. We are in the perfect position to have a significant impact on health outcomes by encouraging patients to take simple, proactive steps to protect against disease.