Cancer that forms in the tissues of the colon (the longest part of the large intestine). Most colon cancers are adenocarcinomas (cancers that begin in cells that make and release mucus and other fluids). Cancer that forms in the tissues of the rectum (the last several inches of the large intestine closest to the anus). Most cases of colon cancer begin as small, noncancerous (benign) clumps of cells called adenomatous polyps. Over time some of these polyps become colon cancers.
Polyps may be small and produce few, if any, symptoms. For this reason, doctors recommend regular screening tests to help prevent colon cancer by identifying polyps before they become colon cancer.
Colorectal cancer begins in the digestive system and symptoms may differ depending on where the cancer starts. In its early stages, colorectal cancer often has no symptoms, which is why screening tests are important. People who have symptoms may have a change in bowel habits, diarrhea, constipation or a feeling that the bowel does not empty completely. They also may experience bright red or very dark blood in the stool, stools that are narrower than normal, discomfort in the abdomen including frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness or cramps, weight loss with no known reason, constant and extreme tiredness, vomiting and anemia (low iron in the blood). Some of these symptoms can be caused by other conditions.
Who should be concerned about colorectal cancer?
While it does not get the attention of other cancers, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer (excluding skin cancer) in the United States and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Risks factors include:
- Age: Chances of developing colorectal cancer increase after age 50. More than 90 percent of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer are older than 50.
- Personal history of colorectal cancer: If you have had colorectal cancer, even though it has been completely removed, you are more likely to develop new cancers in the colon and rectum.
- A personal history of colorectal polyps: If you have had an adenomatous-type polyp, you are at increased risk for developing colorectal cancer, especially if the polyps are large or if there are many of them.
- A personal history of chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): If you have IBD, including ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease, you should begin having a screening colonoscopy eight to 12 years after being diagnosed.
Colorectal cancer is sometimes called a silent killer because in the early stages a person will often have no symptoms. Screening tests are one of the most powerful weapons in preventing colorectal cancer. This is because polyps, or growths, can be detected and removed before they have the chance to turn into cancer. Screening also can result in finding colorectal cancer early, when it is highly curable.
What are treatment options for colorectal cancer?
Treatment for colorectal cancer depends mostly on the size, location and extent of the tumor, as well as a person’s overall health. Surgery to remove the tumor is the most common treatment for colorectal cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy also may be used to kill cancer cells. With new surgical techniques, treatment rarely requires a colostomy (an opening into a “bag” for passage of bowel movements).
How can I reduce my risk for colon cancer?
Screening is the most powerful tool in prevention – regular screening should begin after 50 years of age. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods. Limit the intake of high-fat foods. Be physically active with at least 30 minutes of exercise on five or more days of the week. Maintain a healthy weight. Know your family’s cancer history.
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