Colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers in the U.S. Early stage colon or rectal cancer usually do not have symptoms.
What is Colon Cancer?
Colorectal cancer is cancer that occurs in the colon (large intestines) or rectum (connects the colon to the anus). Ninety to 95 percent of all colon cancers are adenocarcinomas (a cancer that begins in cells that produce mucus or other fluids). These tumors generally start as adenomas (polyps) or small benign (non-cancerous) growths.
Colon Cancer Symptoms
There usually aren’t any symptoms associated with the early stages of colon cancer. That’s why it’s even more important to be mindful of symptoms of colorectal cancer when they begin to appear and to speak with your doctor if you have concerns. Those common symptoms include:
- Weight loss without changes to diet or exercise
- Chronic fatigue
- A change in bathroom habits
- Stool that may be narrower than normal
- Blood in the stool – it can appear bright red, black or tar-like
- A feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
- Abdominal discomfort such as gas pain, bloating, fullness, cramping
Colon Cancer Statistics
- About 25 percent of people over 50 years old have colon polyps
- Colorectal cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S.
- It is still the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States
- According to the Colon Cancer Alliance, the average lifetime risk of developing colon cancer is about one in 20
- One in seven colon cancer patients are younger than 50
Colon Cancer Risk Factors
Routine screenings are your best defense against colorectal cancer. But there are still other things you can do to reduce your risk. While not all risk factors can be altered, some can. And early-stage colon cancer doesn’t usually have symptoms. That’s why it’s important to know the risk factors and make healthy lifestyle choices to reduce your risk.
- Age – 50 years old or older
- Physical inactivity and obesity – Research shows a link between obesity and colon cancer. Regular exercise is key to overall health.
- Diet – A diet high in red and processed meats may lead to a higher chance of developing colon cancer. High amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains have been associated with lower risk of colorectal cancer
- Family history – A family history of cancer can put you at a higher risk
- Smoking – People with a long history of smoking are more likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer
- Alcohol – Heavy alcohol use has been linked to colon cancer
- Diabetes – Research shows a connection between type 2 diabetes and colon cancer
- Race – African-Americans and Native Americans are at higher risk
Colon Cancer Screenings
Colon screenings are vital to ensure your body stays healthy and to uncover any early signs of cancer. Experts recommend a colonoscopy (which examines the entire rectum and colon) every 10 years for those who are 50 years of age or older, unless you have a family history of colon cancer.
A colonoscopy is the gold standard of colorectal cancer screening, but we know that many people are hesitant about the procedure. Depending on your personal history and risk factors, other cancer screening options are available.
Other Colorectal Screening Options
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy – An examination of the rectum and lower part of the colon.
- Digital rectal exam – An exam that checks for irregularities. This test can detect about half of colon cancers and can usually be administered by a primary care physician.
- Fecal occult blood test – A lab test used to look for blood in the stool. You can talk to your primary care doctor about this test.
- Stool DNA test – A lab test used to look for DNA changes in cells. It can also detect blood in stool. This test can usually be performed by your primary care physician.
- X-ray of the large intestine or barium enema – Provides a picture of the colon and can assist in identifying polyps.
- Biopsy – The doctor removes a tissue sample which is sent for examination.
- Virtual colonoscopy – Uses computer software and a CT scan to check for colon polyps.