What is Colon Cancer?

Colon cancer is a malignant growth in the large intestine or rectum. It starts as a small benign growth called an adenoma and slowly transforms into a cancer. It may take up to 10 years for a small polyp to grow into a cancer. Removing polyps while they are small and before they transform into cancers is the biggest benefit of screening colonoscopy.

How common is colon cancer?

Colon cancer is very common. Resulting in over 50,000 deaths per years, it is the second leading cause of cancer death of men and women in the United States. It affects both men and women equally. Nearly 100,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

How is colon cancer diagnosed?

The diagnosis of colon cancer is made by biopsy or removal of a suspicious growth in the colon at the time of a colonoscopy. In many cases the colon cancer can be cured with removal of the malignant lesion during colonoscopy. Furthermore, colonoscopy can prevent colon cancer from developing when pre-cancerous polyps are removed.

When should I have screening colonoscopy?

Screening colonoscopy is recommended in men and women starting at age 50. African-Americans should be screened starting at age 45. Patients with a strong family history of colon cancer or a history of inflammatory bowel disease should be screened at a younger age. It is important to discuss your screening options with your doctor.

UPDATE: The American Cancer Society has lowered their starting age from 50 to 45. Read my blog post on this topic to learn why this change to colon cancer screening is significant.

How often should I have a screening colonoscopy?

Average risk patients should be screened every 10 years provided they have an excellent preparation and no polyps are seen on their exam. If their clean out is suboptimal, or if pre-cancerous (adenomatous) polyps are removed at the time of their initial screening, a shorter interval is required

High risk individuals including those with a family history of colon cancer, a personal history of colon polyps, or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease should be screened more frequently (usually 3-5 years).

What are the symptoms of colon cancer?

Sadly, the most common symptom of colon cancer is no symptom at all. This is why it can be so dangerous and it is why colonoscopy is such an important test. Some symptoms of colon cancer include:

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Change in bowel habit
  • Abdominal pain
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss

What are my risk factors for colon cancer?

The cause of colorectal cancer remains unclear, but most colorectal cancers develop from small growths or polyps. When polyps grow large enough and are not removed, they may become cancerous. Screening colonoscopy can detect precancerous polyps so they can be removed before they turn into cancer. More than 75 percent of colorectal cancer can be avoided through early detection and removal of pre-cancerous polyps. Some risk factors for colon cancer include:

  • Age 50 and older
  • Family history of colon cancer (especially in first degree relative like mother, father, sister or brother)
  • Personal history of colon cancer or adenomatous (precancerous) polyps
  • Personal history of ovarian or endometrial cancer diagnosed before age 50
  • Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
  • African-American race
  • Low fiber diet
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Sedentary life-style

How is colon cancer treated?

Treatment options depend on the size and location of the cancer. Many small cancers are cured by endoscopic polypectomy. Surgery is curative in a large number of other colon cancers. More invasive colon cancers require a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Radiation therapy is often added to the treatment of rectal cancers. Here is a link to some valuable information from the National Cancer Institute.

How can I prevent colon cancer?

The most important thing you can do to prevent colon cancer is to get screened. Colonoscopy is the gold standard screening test and is unique in that it is both diagnostic and therapeutic. Small polyps can be removed at the time of screening colonoscopy there by eliminating the risk of transformation to colon cancer. Early colon cancers can be cured by endoscopic polypectomy.

Other preventative measures include eating a diet high in fiber, avoiding excessive alcohol intake, avoiding cigarettes, keeping your weight down, and living an active lifestyle. By following these recommendations, your chances of developing colon cancer are significantly reduced.

Disclaimer: The information presented on this website is not intended to take the place of your personal physician’s advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  Discuss this information with your healthcare provider to determine what is right for you.  All information is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical condition.

This website is owned and managed by Brian Cooley, MD. Any information, offers or instruction as written, inferred or implied is the sole responsibility of Brian Cooley, MD and does not warrant claim or representation, inherent, or implied of DHAT, its subsidiaries or employees.