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What You Need to Know About Colorectal Cancer

Doctor Q&A

Colorectal Surgeon, certified by MD Anderson Cancer Network®

Every year, we recognize March as National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and for good reason: colorectal cancer is now the third most common cancer in the U.S., and the second most common cause of all cancer-related deaths.

The American Cancer Society expects that nearly 100 thousand new cases of colon cancer and 40 thousand new cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2019. Understanding the basics of colorectal cancer and risk factors associated with the disease is the first step toward prevention.

What causes colon cancer?

Colon and rectal cancers begin as an overgrowth of the cells on the inner lining of these organs. Early areas of this overgrowth often form small tumors called polyps. About a quarter of all adults in the U.S. will have at least one colorectal polyp. While some of these polyps may remain benign, certain types have potential to become a cancer. While the specific cause of colon cancer in any individual is usually very difficult to know, we do know that a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors can contribute to the changes in these cells.

What are the risk factors of colon cancer?

For most people, a family history of colon cancer or precancerous polyps is the biggest risk factor. Other risk factors are lifestyle-oriented, including obesity, alcohol and tobacco use, consumption of processed meat and lack of physical activity. Risk levels increase as we age, most significantly between the ages of 40 and 50.

For the general population, the CDC recommends beginning regular screenings at age 50. Talk to your primary care provider about when to begin screening, which test(s) to get, and how often to get screened, especially if you fall into one of these categories:

  • A close relative has had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer
  • You have an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn's or ulcerative colitis
  • You have a genetic syndrome known to increase your risk for the disease

What are the symptoms of colon cancer?

Without proper screening, colon cancer can largely go undetected—in many cases there aren't any noticeable symptoms associated with the disease. However, there are some signs that should cause you to seek medical evaluation. These include:

  • Significant change in bowel habits
  • Blood in the stool
  • Dark stools
  • Unexplained weight loss

How is colon cancer detected?

There are many ways to detect colon cancer, from laboratory tests of the stool, to X-ray tests, to colonoscopies. Your age and possible symptoms will help determine which test is right for you. Of all the tests, a colonoscopy is the best way to make a definitive diagnosis.

What is the survival rate for patients with colon cancer?

When colorectal cancer is found at an early stage before it has spread, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 90 percent. Unfortunately, many of those who should get tested for colorectal cancer have never been screened. Although bowel-related symptoms can seem embarrassing, patients shouldn't hesitate to seek medical care in the event something is bothering them. You never know when a screening can save your life.

How is colon cancer treated?

Treatments for colorectal cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination. Surgery can usually cure the disease when it's found early. That's why screening is so important.

How can colon cancer be prevented?

Aside from avoiding lifestyle behaviors that increase your risk, catching signs of colon cancer early is the best way to prevent the disease from developing. A polyp can take 10–15 years to develop into cancer, so there's lots of opportunity through regular screening to find and remove polyps before they turn into cancer.

Being better informed about colorectal cancer can help you take better control of your health. Maintaining healthy eating and exercise habits can help prevent colon cancer. Drinking in moderation and refraining from smoking are also helpful preventive approaches.

About AdventHealth Cancer Care

As Kansas City's only affiliate of MD Anderson Cancer Center Network®, a program supported by MD Anderson Cancer Center, AdventHealth is raising the standard of cancer care, providing therapies, technology and clinical expertise aligned with MD Anderson's evidence-based treatment guidelines. For more information about AdventHealth Cancer Center Shawnee Mission, visit AHigherStandard.com.