What is Colorectal (Colon) Cancer?

Colorectal cancer, also referred to as colon cancer, is a cancer originating from the colon or rectum. Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. It’s also the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women.

What Causes Colorectal Cancer?

Almost all colorectal cancers begin as precancerous polyps (abnormal growths) in the colon or rectum. If discovered early, precancerous polyps can be removed surgically before they turn into cancer. 

Other risk factors of developing colorectal cancer include: 

  • Being over age 45
  • A high-fat diet
  • Family or personal history of colon cancer or polyps
  • Ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease or other inflammatory bowel diseases
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Growth hormone disorder
  • Radiation therapy for cancer

What are the Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer?

Many cases of colorectal cancer have no symptoms until the cancer has advanced. That being said, the following symptoms may indicate colon cancer:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days
  • A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that's not relieved by having one
  • Rectal bleeding with bright red blood
  • Blood in the stool, which may make the stool look dark
  • Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Anemia

If you have any of these symptoms, see your physician immediately. In some cases, symptoms are caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to rule it out completely is to consult with your doctor.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the most effective way to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer is to get screened for colorectal cancer routinely, beginning at age 45. Be sure to check with your insurance carrier to see what coverage you have. If you have a family history of polyps or colon cancer, your doctor may advise you to get screened before age 45.

Additional steps you can take include:

  • Add fruits, whole grains and vegetables to your diet
  • Limit saturated fat
  • Limit alcohol
  • Eat a varied diet
  • Stop smoking
  • Stay active and maintain a healthy body weight
  • Add a regular colonoscopy, as prescribed by your physician, to your health-care practices

What is the Treatment for Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal cancer treatment depends on the stage of the cancer, whether the cancer is recurring, and the patient’s general health.

The three primary treatment options available for colon cancer are:

  • Surgery: The surgical option, a partial colectomy, is the main treatment and includes removing the affected portion of the colon. How much of the colon is removed and whether it is done 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.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy can be used after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells and may be recommended by the doctor if the cancer has spread beyond the colon. Chemotherapy can be used in conjunction with radiation.
  • 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 early stages of colon cancer.

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