Colon cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the large intestine (colon). The colon is the final part of the digestive tract.
Colon cancer typically affects older adults, though it can happen at any age. It usually begins as small, noncancerous (benign) clumps of cells called polyps that form on the inside of the colon. Over time some of these polyps can become colon cancers.
Polyps may be small and produce few, if any, symptoms. For this reason, doctors recommend regular screening tests to help prevent colon cancer by identifying and removing polyps before they turn into cancer.
If colon cancer develops, many treatments are available to help control it, including surgery, radiation therapy and drug treatments, such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
Colon cancer is sometimes called colorectal cancer, which is a term that combines colon cancer and rectal cancer, which begins in the rectum.
The symptoms of colon cancer are the same in men and women and include the following:
Changes in bowel habits
An upset stomach or a minor infection can often cause changes in the bowels, such as constipation, diarrhea, or very narrow, thin stools. However, these issues usually resolve within a few days as the illness subsides.
Changes in the bowels that last more than a few days may be a sign of an underlying health issue.
If a person has these symptoms regularly or for longer than a few days, they should see a doctor.
Cramps and bloating
Occasional cramps or bloating are common digestive issues that can occur due to an upset stomach, gas, or eating certain foods.
Experiencing frequent, unexplained cramps and bloating can be a sign of colon cancer, though these symptoms are more often the result of other health issues.
Feeling as though the bowels are not empty
If a growth turns into a blockage in the colon, it may cause the person to feel as though they can never empty their bowels.
Even if their bowels are empty, they will still feel the need to use the restroom again.
Blood in the stool
Seeing blood in the stool can be frightening. The stool may have streaks of fresh red blood, or the whole stool may have a darker, tarry appearance.
There are many other possible causes of bloody stools, such as hemorrhoids. However, anyone experiencing blood in their stool should still see a doctor for a diagnosis.
Unexplained weight loss
Suddenly and unexpectedly losing weight is a sign of several types of cancer. Unintentionally losing 10 pounds or more within 6 months may be a sign to report to a doctor.
In people with cancer, the weight loss may be due to cancer cells consuming more of the body’s energy. The immune system is also working hard to fight the cancer cells.
If the tumor is large, it may lead to blockages in the colon, which can cause bowel changes and further weight loss.
People with colon cancer may feel constant fatigue or weakness, possibly due to the cancer cells using extra energy and the stress of bowel symptoms. Although feeling tired now and then is normal, chronic fatigue does not go away with rest.
Chronic fatigue is generally a symptom of an underlying condition. Anyone experiencing fatigue should see a doctor to help determine the cause.
Shortness of breath
Once cancer begins to drain energy from the body and fatigue sets in, it is common for people to experience related symptoms, such as shortness of breath.
They may find it difficult to catch their breath or might become winded very quickly from something as simple as walking a short distance or laughing.
Some factors may increase a person’s risk of developing colon cancer, including:
A personal history of digestive issues, such as colorectal polyps or IBD
A family history of polyps or colorectal cancer
Some inherited gene mutations, such as hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC)
Having type 2 diabetes
Some ethnic backgrounds, including being African American or Ashkenazi Jewish
It is not possible to prevent cancer in all cases, but making lifestyle changes to eliminate some risk factors may help a person reduce their likelihood of developing colon cancer.
As the American Cancer Society (ACS) note, a diet that is high in red meat or processed meat products increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
These foods include:
Cooking meats at very high temperatures, such as on the grill or in a broiler or deep fryer, releases carcinogenic chemicals. These chemicals may also increase the risk of a person getting colon cancer, though the relationship between meat cooking methods and cancer is still unclear.
Being overweight or having obesity increases a person’s risk of developing or dying from colon cancer.
According to the ACS, the link between obesity and colorectal cancer also seems to be stronger in men. Losing weight can help reduce the risk.
Being physically inactive increases the risk of developing colon cancer. Staying active by doing even light workouts each day may help reduce this risk.
People who drink heavily or regularly may also be putting themselves at greater risk of colon cancer. Men should limit their drinking to no more than two drinks per day.
People who smoke are more likely to develop or die from colon cancer than those who do not. Smoking cigarettes also increases the risk of many other types of cancer.
Treatment will depend on the type and stage of the cancer, and the age, health status, and other characteristics of the patient.
There is no single treatment for any cancer, but the most common options for colon cancer are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Treatments seek to remove the cancer and relieve any painful symptoms.
Surgery to remove part or all of the colon is called a colectomy. The surgeon removes the part of the colon containing the cancer and the surrounding area.
Nearby lymph nodes are also usually removed. The healthy portion of the colon will either be reattached to the rectum or attached to a stoma depending on the extent of the colectomy.
A stoma is an opening made in the wall of the abdomen. Waste will pass into a bag, removing the need for the lower part of the colon. This is called a colostomy.
Some small, localized cancers can be removed using endoscopy.
Laparoscopic surgery, using several small incisions in the abdomen, may be an option to remove larger polyps.
Palliative surgery may relieve symptoms in cases of untreatable or advanced cancers. The aim is to relieve any blockage of the colon and manage pain, bleeding, and other symptoms.
Chemotherapy administers chemicals that interfere with the cell division process by damaging proteins or DNA in order to damage and kill cancer cells.
These treatments target any rapidly dividing cells, including healthy ones. The healthy cells can usually recover from any chemically-induced damage, but cancer cells cannot.
Chemotherapy is generally used to treat cancer that has spread because the medicines travel through the whole body. Treatment occurs in cycles, so the body has time to heal between doses.
Common side effects include:
Combination therapies often mix multiple types of chemotherapy or combine chemotherapy with other treatments.
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