At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, we feel that knowledge is your first line of defense against colorectal cancer. We understand that a colon cancer or rectal cancer diagnosis can leave you with a lot of questions, which is why we encourage you to learn more about it by reading through this list of common questions and answers.
What is Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer is a term used to describe cancer that starts in the colon or rectum (the last part of the digestive tract). Colon cancer can start anywhere in the colon, whereas rectal cancer is confined to the rectum or the last 5 inches of the colon. While they are sometimes called by their individual names, colon cancer and/or rectal cancer, they are usually referred to by the single phrase “colorectal cancer.”
What is the Colon?
The colon, also known as the large intestine, is a tube-like organ designed to remove waste products from your body. As part of the digestive system, the colon works alongside organs such as the stomach and small intestine to remove stool and maintain your fluid balance.
Your colon is shaped like a little “n” with an entryway that connects to the small intestine and a discharge section (the rectum) that finally eliminates waste when you have a bowel movement. It has 5 basic parts, which include:
- The ascending colon
- The transverse colon
- The descending colon
- The sigmoid colon
- The rectum
How Does Colorectal Cancer Develop?
Typically, colorectal cancer begins as a polyp— a small clump of cells that forms on the lining of the colon or rectum. Although most polyps found in the large intestine are harmless, there are some that can develop into cancer, which is often fatal when found in its later stages. There are two common kinds of polyps, which include:
- Hyperplastic polyps, which are usually benign and occur in areas where your body has repaired damaged tissue.
- Adenomas, which are generally considered precancerous. Anywhere from one-third to one-half of people will develop at least one adenoma which, if not removed, could become cancerous over the course of 5 to 10 years.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer?
As with many other cancers, symptoms of colorectal cancer may not appear until after the cancer has already progressed and spread. In addition, many common signs of colorectal cancer are the same symptoms that arise from less dangerous conditions, such as hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Symptoms of colorectal cancer may include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Blood in the stool, or stool that is extremely dark in color
- Diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool (e.g. stool that is stringy or pencil-like) that lasts for several days
- The sensation that you need to have a bowel movement even after you have one
- Rectal bleeding
- Unexplained weight loss
Is Colorectal Cancer Hereditary?
Surprisingly, only about 5% of colorectal cancers are considered to be hereditary. With that said, you are 2-3 times more likely than the average person to develop colorectal cancer if close relatives such as parents, siblings, or children have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
Certain inherited conditions can also increase the risk that you will develop rectal and colon cancer. These include Lynch syndrome and Familial adenomatous polyposis.
What is a Screening Colonoscopy and When Should I Have One?
A screening colonoscopy is an outpatient procedure that is performed on sedated patients. In this procedure, a flexible scope equipped with a lighted camera is used to inspect the entire colon and rectum. During the operation, your surgeon will generally remove any polyps discovered in the colon. In order to prepare for the colonoscopy, you will likely be instructed to only drink clear liquids like water and chicken broth the day before the procedure.
If you are considered an average risk for colorectal cancer, it is recommended that you begin screening at 45. If no concerns are raised, screening should continue to be done every 10 years thereafter. Of course, there are some exceptions to this guideline. For instance:
- African Americans are usually at higher risk for colorectal cancer, and should thus begin screening earlier than age 45
- Individuals with a family history of colorectal cancer should begin screening around age 40
- Any other individuals at high risk (those with hereditary syndromes, IBS, etc.) should begin screening earlier than age 45, and should screen more frequently thereafter
Are There Other Ways to Detect Colorectal Cancer?
If you would prefer something other than a traditional colonoscopy, there are alternative screening options available. These include:
- Flex sigmoidoscopy
- Virtual colonoscopy
- Stool testing
In the near future, researchers may also develop a blood test for colorectal cancer detection. It should be noted that if any of these tests come up positive for colorectal cancer markers, it is most likely that your attending physician will still recommend a traditional colonoscopy.
What is the Prognosis When Diagnosed with Colorectal Cancer?
Regardless of the stage, the 5-year overall survival rate for patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer is about 65%. When caught earlier, however, the rate increases to 90%.
Being that colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States, getting screened is extremely important. So important that The National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable has made it their mission to increase colorectal screenings up to 80%, which could prevent over 200,000 deaths within the next two decades.
Can I Prevent Colorectal Cancer?
Unfortunately, there is no 100% guaranteed way to prevent colorectal cancer. Nevertheless, there are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing this disease. These include:
- Engaging in 2 1/2 hours of moderate to strenuous physical exercise every week
- Limiting the amount of red and processed meats you eat
- Taking in adequate amounts of calcium, fiber, fruits, and vegetables
- Limiting your daily alcohol consumption (1 drink for women, 2 drinks for men)
- Avoiding/quitting cigarettes and other forms of smoking
- Working to maintain a healthy body mass index and weight
Even though colorectal cancer can be a scary prospect for many, if you know your family’s medical history, screen early, and cultivate a healthy lifestyle, then you will greatly reduce your risk of developing this harmful disease.
Remember, RMCC is here to help you win the battle against colorectal cancer by providing easy access to a full range of advanced cancer care services in a setting that allows you to remain close to your home as well as your support network of family and friends.