Colon cancer forms in the lining of the colon. Rectal cancer forms in the lining of the rectum, the last several inches of the large intestine terminating in the anus. Either of these cancers is called colorectal cancer.
Colon cancer forms in the lining of the colon. Rectal cancer forms in the lining of the rectum, the last several inches of the large intestine terminating in the anus. Either of these cancers doctors call colorectal cancer.
In the United States, colon cancer is the second deadliest form of cancer when considering both men and women together. Each year about 150,000 people will be diagnosed, and 50,000 people will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.
Though scientists are unsure of the exact cause, they have been able to identify some risk factors.
- Being over age 50
- Polyps, growths inside the colon and rectum that may become cancerous
- A high-fat diet
- Family or personal history of colon cancer or polyps
- Ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s Disease or other inflammatory bowel diseases involving the colon
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Radiation therapy for cancer
Many cases have no symptoms or warning signs until the cancer has advanced. However there are some symptoms that may indicate colon cancer, but sometimes people confuse these symptoms for other conditions such as hemorrhoids. You should consult with your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms and are unsure of the cause.
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer
- Abdominal pain or tenderness in the lower abdomen
- Bloody stool
- Diarrhea, constipation or other changes in bowel functions
- Narrower than normal stools
- Unexplained anemia
- Unexplained weight loss
- Bloating, fullness or cramps
What Are Colon Polyps
A colon polyp is a growth of extra tissue in the lining of the rectum or colon. While some can be cancerous, most are not. However, almost all colon cancer does begin as a polyp. Therefore, by removing polyps early, the chances of it growing into cancer are eliminated. People with a higher risk for developing polyps are anyone over age 50, those who have had polyps previously, or those who have a family history of polyps or colon cancer. However you can still be at risk without having a family history of either condition. In fact, 80 percent of those who are diagnosed with colon cancer have no family history.
Polyps generally do not cause symptoms. If a patient does have symptoms, they can include blood in their underwear or on toilet paper after a bowel movement, blood in stool, or constipation or diarrhea that has lasted more than a week.
Doctors can remove polyps during a colonoscopy. If precancerous polyps are removed, the chance of the polyp turning into cancer is zero. Colon cancer is also highly treatable when discovered early. Depending on an individual’s medical and family history, colonoscopies are typically recommended every one, three, five or 10 years.
Colon Cancer Treatments and Procedures
The three primary treatment options available for colon cancer are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Treatment options depend on the stage of the cancer, whether the cancer has recurred and the patient’s general health. The surgical option, a partial colectomy, is the main treatment and includes removing the affected portion of the colon. How much of the colon the doctor removes and whether they do it in conjunction with other treatments will depend on the location of the cancer, how deep it has penetrated the wall of the bowel and if it has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
In surgical treatment, the part of the colon that contains the cancer, as well as portions of healthy colon on either side, doctors will remove to ensure there is no cancer. Nearby lymph nodes, they remove and test at the same time. Usually the doctor is able to reconnect the healthy portions of the colon, but if that is not possible the patient will have a temporary or permanent colostomy bag. A colostomy bag is a device you wear on the skin discreetly under the clothing and attaches to the remaining bowel. Waste material travels into this bag which is then disposed of, and the bag is replaced as needed. Sometimes, a colostomy is temporary to give the bowel time to heal. It may become permanent if the doctor has to remove too much of the colon or the rectum.
If the cancer is small, early stage and localized in a polyp, it is possible the doctor will remove it all during a colonoscopy.
If the cancer is very advanced or the patient’s health is extremely poor, surgery may be done simply to provide comfort. This is an operation that will relieve a blockage of the colon to improve symptoms. This will not cure cancer but may relieve pain and bleeding.
Chemotherapy is something doctors may use after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells, and may recommend if the cancer has spread beyond the lining of the colon. Chemotherapy is something they may use in conjunction with radiation. Radiation therapy uses powerful energy sources to kill any cancer cells that may remain after surgery or to shrink large tumors before an operation. This option is rarely used in the early stages of colon cancer.
Preventing Colon Cancer
Getting screened is the first step in prevention. Several screening options are available, including colonoscopy and flexible sigmoidoscopy. Regular colonoscopies should begin at age 50 for people with an average risk for developing colon cancer. If you have a family history of polyps or colon cancer, many physicians may recommend getting your first colonoscopy at age 40 or even earlier depending on your history. Some recent studies indicate that African-Americans may need to start screening at age 45. More frequent and earlier screening is something doctors recommend if you are at high risk for colon cancer.
Lifestyle changes can also reduce the risk and include:
- Adding fruits, whole grains and vegetables to your diet
- Limit saturated fat
- Limit alcohol
- Eat a varied diet
- Quit smoking
- Stay active and maintain a healthy body weight