According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the U.S., excluding skin cancers. Although the risk of developing colon cancer is small, around five percent, it’s still important to be aware of the symptoms and causes so you can be prepared should you develop it.
Colon cancer is the cancer of the large intestine and is known as a colorectal cancer along with rectal cancer, which is cancer of the last few inches of the colon. Lymphoma, melanoma, sarcoma and other types of cancers can affect the colon as well, but are generally rare.
Some people with colon cancer may not experience any symptoms, but those who do exhibit these symptoms have more than likely developed colon cancer:
- Abdominal pain or discomfort, including cramps or gas
- Blood in the stool or a bleeding rectum
- Change in bowel habits or in the stool’s consistency
- Feeling that the bowel doesn’t completely empty
- Weakness or fatigue
- Weight loss
The symptoms will vary from person to person, but if you are exhibiting any of these symptoms, especially a change in bowel habits or blood in your stool, see your doctor immediately. If there’s a history of colon cancer in your family, you may want to schedule a screening although screenings for colon cancer generally start at 50.
Many times, the exact cause of colon cancer can’t be pinpointed. However, colon cancer usually begins when polyps form in the inner lining of the colon. Those polyps are formed by the uncontrolled growth of cells, and over time, those cells can turn cancerous. Early screenings can catch polyps before they turn cancerous, which will greatly reduce your risk of developing colon cancer.
Another cause of colon cancer is inherited genetic mutations. Although the percentage of people who are genetically predisposed to colon cancer is small, a genetic mutation can greatly increase the risk of developing colon cancer. There are two types of mutations:
- Familial adenomatous polyposis, or FAP: This causes thousands of polyps to develop in the lining of the colon and rectum. FAP is rare, but increases the likelihood of developing colon cancer before the age of 40.
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, or HNPCC: This is also known as Lynch syndrome and people with HNPCC tend to develop colon cancer before the age of 50.
Through genetic testing, it can be determined if you have either FAP or HPNCC, so if your family has a history of these conditions, you may want to be tested for them as well.
But a genetic mutation isn’t the only risk factor for cancer. If you fall into the following categories, you also may be at a higher risk of developing colon cancer:
- If you are over the age of 60
- If you have Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or another inflammatory bowel disease
- If you have a family history of colon cancer
- If you have colorectal polyps
- If you have had breast cancer or another type of cancer before
- If you eat a diet that is high in red meat and fat and low in fiber
- If you smoke and drink alcohol in abundance
- If you are African-American or of Eastern European descent
- If you are overweight or live a sedentary lifestyle
- If you have diabetes
- If you’ve had radiation therapy before
There are a few ways to diagnose someone with cancer, the most prevalent and most conclusive being a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is where the doctor inserts a long, thin, flexible tube that’s attached to a video camera into the rectum. If the doctor sees anything suspicious, he or she will have to take a biopsy of that area so it can be analyzed. If you’re unable to undergo a colonoscopy, your doctor may instead decide to do a virtual colonoscopy, which is basically a CT scan of your colon.
Another way to diagnose colon cancer is through a barium enema. The barium is used as a dye and will make your colon and even small intestine visible on an X-ray.
Once you’ve been diagnosed, the doctor will need to do further testing, perhaps through blood tests and CT scans, to determine what stage the cancer is in. The stages of colon cancer are:
- Stage I – The cancer is in the inner layers of the colon
- Stage II – The cancer has spread through the wall of the colon
- Stage III – The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes close by
- Stage IV – The cancer has spread to other organs in the body
The treatment you receive really depends on what stage the cancer is in. The main way to get rid of the cancer is to have surgery. If the cancer is small and in its early stages, it is possible to have it removed during a colonoscopy. If the cancer is in stage II or III, a portion of the colon and the nearby lymph nodes may need to be removed in a colectomy. If the cancer is in a more advanced stage, you may need a larger operation.
Other treatments for colon cancer include:
- Chemotherapy – If the cancer is in stage II or II, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy, which will control tumor growth and destroy any cancerous cells.
- Radiation therapy – This type of therapy may be used in conjunction with chemotherapy and uses X-rays to shrink tumors, usually before surgery.
Your doctor may also use a drug therapy to target the cancerous cells.
Even though screenings for colon cancer usually start at age 50, you may want to consider getting screened before then if you feel you’re at risk of developing it. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is also a good way to ward off any cancer. Eating right, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding harmful substances is the best way to your body healthy and free of disease.