What is Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer is a cancer that starts in the colon (large intestine) or rectum. Both of these organs are in the lower portion of your digestive system. The rectum is at the end of the colon.
What are the causes of Colorectal Cancer?
In general, colon cancer begins when healthy cells in the colon develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell's DNA contains a set of instructions that tell a cell what to do.
Healthy cells grow and divide in an orderly way to keep your body functioning normally. But when a cell's DNA is damaged and becomes cancerous, cells continue to divide — even when new cells aren't needed. As the cells accumulate,
they form a tumor.
With time, the cancer cells can grow to invade and destroy normal tissue nearby. And cancerous cells can travel to other parts of the body to form deposits there (metastasis).
Factors that may increase your risk of colon cancer include:
- Older age. Colon cancer can be diagnosed at any age, but a majority of people with colon cancer are older than 50. The rates of colon cancer in people younger than 50 have been increasing, but doctors aren't sure
- A personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps. If you've already had colon cancer or noncancerous colon polyps, you have a greater risk of colon cancer in the future.
- Inflammatory intestinal conditions. Chronic inflammatory diseases of the colon, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, can increase your risk of colon cancer.
- Inherited syndromes that increase colon cancer risk. Some gene mutations passed through generations of your family can increase your risk of colon cancer significantly. Only a small percentage of colon cancers
are linked to inherited genes. The most common inherited syndromes that increase colon cancer risk are familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and Lynch syndrome, which is also known as hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer
- Family history of colon cancer. You're more likely to develop colon cancer if you have a blood relative who has had the disease. If more than one family member has colon cancer or rectal cancer, your risk is even
- Low-fiber, high-fat diet. Colon cancer and rectal cancer may be associated with a typical Western diet, which is low in fiber and high in fat and calories. Research in this area has had mixed results. Some studies
have found an increased risk of colon cancer in people who eat diets high in red meat and processed meat.
- A sedentary lifestyle. People who are inactive are more likely to develop colon cancer. Getting regular physical activity may reduce your risk of colon cancer.
- Diabetes. People with diabetes or insulin resistance have an increased risk of colon cancer.
- Obesity. People who are obese have an increased risk of colon cancer and an increased risk of dying of colon cancer when compared with people considered normal weight.
- Smoking. People who smoke may have an increased risk of colon cancer.
- Alcohol. Heavy use of alcohol increases your risk of colon cancer.
- Radiation therapy for cancer. Radiation therapy directed at the abdomen to treat previous cancers increases the risk of colon cancer.
What are the symptoms of Colorectal Cancer?
Common signs of colorectal cancer include the following:
- Change in bowel habits: Constipation, diarrhea, narrowing of stools, incomplete evacuation, and bowel incontinence — although usually symptoms of other, less serious problems — can also be symptoms of colorectal
- Blood on or in the stool: By far the most noticeable of all the signs, blood on or in the stool can be associated with colorectal cancer. However, it does not necessarily indicate cancer, since numerous other problems
can cause bleeding in the digestive tract, including hemorrhoids, anal tears (fissures), ulcerative colitis, and Crohn's disease. In addition, iron and some foods, such as beets, can give the stool a black or red appearance,
falsely indicating blood in the stool. However, if you notice blood in or on your stool, see your doctor to rule out a serious condition and to ensure that proper treatment is received.
- Unexplained anemia: Anemia is a shortage of red blood cells— the cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. If you are anemic, you may experience shortness of breath. You may also feel tired and sluggish, so
much so that rest does not make you feel better.
- Abdominal or pelvic pain or bloating
- Unexplained weight loss
If you experience any of these signs or symptoms, it is important to see your doctor for evaluation. For a patient with colorectal cancer, early diagnosis and treatment can be life-saving.
What are the treatment options for Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer is treated based on the stage of cancer. Staging identifies the severity of the cancer. Treatment options can include the use of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
Screening colon cancer
Doctors recommend that people with an average risk of colon cancer consider colon cancer screening around age 50. But people with an increased risk, such as those with a family history of colon cancer, should consider screening sooner.
Several screening options exist — each with its own benefits and drawbacks. Talk about your options with your doctor, and together you can decide which tests are appropriate for you.