Colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer death in the United States, affecting both men and women.
To understand colorectal cancer, it’s important to know that the colon (also called the large intestine or the large bowel) is the muscular tube that forms the last part of the digestive tract. It absorbs water and stores food waste, and is four to six feet long. The rectum makes up the last 6 inches of the colon.
Colon and rectal cancer, often grouped as colorectal cancer, occurs when cells in the colon or rectum change and multiply at an exaggerated rate. These cells can then form lumps of tissue called tumors. Cancer in the colon is called colon cancer, and cancer in the rectum is called rectal cancer.
When cells change in the colon or rectum, this can lead to the growth of polyps. Over time, polyps may turn cancerous. A polyp is a clump of tissue that forms along the colon or rectum. The larger a polyp grows, the more likely it is to be cancerous.
If polyps are removed early on, cancer may be prevented. When the polyp cells grow abnormally, and as cancerous tumors grow, more of the colon and rectum may be involved, and the cancer can also grow into other organs or glands. This is called metastasis.
Unfortunately, cancer in the colon or rectum is a leading cause of cancer death in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be. The tricky part is that colorectal cancer rarely causes symptoms in its earliest stages. This is why screening for the disease is recommended. It’s even more important to be vigilant about screening if you have risk factors for the disease.
The risk for colorectal cancer increases if you are 50 years of age or older. If you have a family history or personal history of cancer, you’re also at a greater risk. If you have a personal history of colorectal polyps, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, you may also be at greater risk.
Many types of screenings for detecting colorectal cancer are available. In a screening, you’ll begin with a medical history and examination. It’s important to mention if your family member has had colon cancer or polyps. You’ll also receive a digital rectal exam, which is painless and very quick.
Possible tests for colorectal cancer include:
- Fecal occult blood test, in which a small sample of your stool is tested for blood
- Barium enema with contrast, in which x-rays are taken of the colon and rectum
- Virtual colonoscopy, in which a series of x-rays create a 3-D view of the colon
- Or, a scope examination such as a traditional colonoscopy can be performed. This is typically suggested once every ten years for individuals over the age of 50.
If polyps are detected, removing them early on is not a very difficult or extremely painful process. If colon or rectal cancer does develop, options including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are available. You and your healthcare team will discuss a treatment plan that best fits your needs.
It’s also important to know that cancerous cells can travel to other parts of the body. Staging cancer determines whether the cancer has spread, and if so, how far it has spread.
In stage I, cancer is only found in the colon or rectum lining. In stage II, cancer has spread outside to nearby tissue, but not to the lymph nodes. In stage III, cancer has spread to the nearby lymph nodes, but not other parts of the body. In stage IV, cancer cells have traveled to other organs in the body such as the liver or the lungs.
Although colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer death, it does not have to be, since colorectal cancer is easily treated if caught early on. Remember to get a screening test when you reach age 50, or if you have a family history. Just because you don’t have any symptoms, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a chance of developing colorectal cancer.
To learn more, visit cancercarepartnership.org.
Edward Balaban, DO, is the medical director of CANCER CARE PARTNERSHIP, a joint venture between Mount Nittany Health and Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute. Dr. Balaban graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, completed his internship/residency at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, and completed a fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Dr. Balaban lives in State College, and enjoys jogging, following news and sports, and relaxing with his wife in his spare time.