Whether colon cancer runs in your family or you’re interested in learning about health conditions as part of an effort to improve your well-being, it’s important to understand this type of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, a person’s overall risk of developing colon cancer is 1 in 23, so it’s common for many people to be affected by this disease either directly or indirectly. Understanding the signs and symptoms of colon cancer can help answer some of your questions as you begin learning more about it.
What Is Colon Cancer?
Cancer is an illness that begins when cells start working in abnormal ways. Typically, cells help form tissue or complete other biological processes. They divide at a predictable rate to create new cells, and they die off when they become damaged or stop working the way they’re supposed to. Sometimes, cells become damaged, but instead of dying off, they continue replicating these incorrect, mutated versions of themselves. When this happens, the abnormal cells start to crowd out the normal cells because the damaged versions don’t die off the way they typically would. This out-of-control cell growth is the basis of cancer.
When this process of abnormal growth begins in your colon, it’s the start of colon cancer. Your colon is a 5-foot-long section of your large intestine (sometimes called the lower bowel) that food continues passing through once it leaves your small intestine. As this food matter moves along, your colon removes the remaining water and salt from it before the material moves into your rectum and out of your body.
Colon cancer is also often called colorectal cancer because these two sections of the lower intestine, your colon and rectum, are connected to one another and share many of the same features. Although this type of cancer begins in the colon, it can spread to other areas of your body — most commonly to the liver. While it normally affects older adults, anyone can get colon cancer at any age. There are different types of cancers that can begin in your colon, too. Sometimes they might begin with similar symptoms, but symptoms can also vary based on the location of the cancer in your colon.
Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer
In the earliest stages of colon cancer, it’s common not to experience any symptoms. However, you might begin to notice changes in your bowel movements or stools. You may be constipated or have diarrhea, and your stools may start changing in color or shape. It’s common to have narrowed stools when you have colon cancer. There may also be blood in your stools or coming from your rectum.
Abdominal issues are also common early warning signs of colon cancer. Your stomach may cramp up often, or you might experience general pain in your abdomen. This can be due to the excessive gas and flatulence that people frequently experience in the early stages of colon cancer. If you notice any of these changes lasting longer than several days when you haven’t changed your diet or routine, make an appointment with your doctor. They can get you scheduled for a colon cancer screening test. The earlier the cancer is detected, the better the chances are of treating it successfully.
If colon cancer progresses undetected, you may not notice symptoms until it’s in the later stages of the disease. Late-stage symptoms include the feeling that you’re always exhausted or fatigued, and this may be accompanied by weakness in your body or unintended weight loss. Late-stage colon cancer can also cause you to vomit. When you have a bowel movement, you might feel like you aren’t able to fully empty your rectum.
Colon cancer can spread to other areas of your body — most commonly your liver, your lungs and the lining of your abdomen — in its later stages. If the cancer has progressed to this point, you may experience symptoms such as a yellowing of your skin and eyes because your liver isn’t working as well. Your hands and feet might swell, and you may find it difficult to breathe. Frequent headaches and blurry vision are other symptoms people tend to have in the later stages of colon cancer.
Treating Colon Cancer
If you’re diagnosed with colon cancer, you may have some options when it comes to the treatments that you undergo. Generally, the different stages of the cancer require different types of treatments, but the location of the cancer and the type of cancer it is can also influence the procedures you may need.
If the colon cancer is at stage 0, this means that the cancerous cells have not spread anywhere beyond the inner lining of your colon. Often, surgery to remove the tumor or damaged section of the colon is the only type of treatment necessary at this stage. If your colon cancer is in stage 1, this means the abnormal cell growth has moved deeper into the walls of your colon. Surgery is also the most common treatment at this stage, although it may be more extensive and could involve removing a full section of your colon.
Colon cancer that’s at stage 2 has grown beyond the walls of your colon and may be spreading into nearby tissues in your body. Again, surgery may be the only treatment you need, but your doctor may also recommend that you undergo a course of chemotherapy after your surgery. This treatment involves taking medications that kill off any remaining cancer cells. If the colon cancer shows signs that it has a higher risk of coming back, your doctor will likely opt to follow up your surgery with chemotherapy.
Stage 3 colon cancer has spread out of your colon and into your lymph nodes. These are small glands that are part of your immune system, and they work to fight off infections. The standard treatment for colon cancer that’s at this stage is to surgically remove as many of the cancerous colon sections and lymph nodes as possible before progressing with chemotherapy. If you’re unable to have surgery for any reason, your doctor may use chemotherapy and radiation, which is a treatment that uses highly concentrated X-ray beams to kill cancer cells.
If your colon cancer is at stage 4, this means it has spread beyond your colon and lymph nodes into distant areas of your body, such as other organs. Surgery typically can’t remove all of the cancerous areas at this stage, but your doctor may use it to remove as many of them as possible. You’ll likely also have chemotherapy, radiation and targeted therapy, which involves using special drugs that target the specific genes and proteins in the cancer cells to stop them from replicating.