Symptoms and causes:
- A change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation or a change in the consistency of your stool, that lasts longer than four weeks
- Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
- Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas or pain
- A feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty completely
- Weakness or fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
Many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. When symptoms appear, they’ll likely vary, depending on the cancer’s size and location in your large intestine.
When to see a doctor
If you notice any symptoms of colon cancer, such as blood in your stool or a persistent change in bowel habits, make an appointment with your doctor.
Talk to your doctor about when you should begin screening for colon cancer. Guidelines generally recommend that colon cancer screenings begin at age 50. Your doctor may recommend more frequent or earlier screening if you have other risk factors, such as a family history of the disease.
In most cases, it’s not clear what causes colon cancer. Doctors know that colon cancer occurs when healthy cells in the colon develop errors in their DNA.
Healthy cells grow and divide in an orderly way to keep your body functioning normally. But when a cell’s DNA is damaged and becomes cancerous, cells continue to divide — even when new cells aren’t needed. As the cells accumulate, they form a tumor.
With time, the cancer cells can grow to invade and destroy normal tissue nearby. And cancerous cells can travel to other parts of the body.
Inherited gene mutations that increase the risk of colon cancer
Inherited gene mutations that increase the risk of colon cancer can be passed through families, but these inherited genes are linked to only a small percentage of colon cancers. Inherited gene mutations don’t make cancer inevitable, but they can increase an individual’s risk of cancer significantly.
The most common forms of inherited colon cancer syndromes are:
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC). HNPCC, also called Lynch syndrome, increases the risk of colon cancer and other cancers. People with HNPCC tend to develop colon cancer before age 50.
- Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). FAP is a rare disorder that causes you to develop thousands of polyps in the lining of your colon and rectum. People with untreated FAP have a greatly increased risk of developing colon cancer before age 40.
FAP, HNPCC and other, rarer inherited colon cancer syndromes can be detected through genetic testing. If you’re concerned about your family’s history of colon cancer, talk to your doctor about whether your family history suggests you have a risk of these conditions.
Association between diet and increased colon cancer risk
Studies of large groups of people have shown an association between a typical Western diet and an increased risk of colon cancer. A typical Western diet is high in fat and low in fiber.
When people move from areas where the typical diet is low in fat and high in fiber to areas where the typical Western diet is most common, the risk of colon cancer in these people increases significantly. It’s not clear why this occurs, but researchers are studying whether a high-fat, low-fiber diet affects the microbes that live in the colon or causes underlying inflammation that may contribute to cancer risk. This is an area of active investigation and research is ongoing.
Factors that may increase your risk of colon cancer include:
- Older age. The great majority of people diagnosed with colon cancer are older than 50. Colon cancer can occur in younger people, but it occurs much less frequently.
- African-American race. African-Americans have a greater risk of colon cancer than do people of other races.
- A personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps. If you’ve already had colon cancer or adenomatous polyps, you have a greater risk of colon cancer in the future.
- Inflammatory intestinal conditions. Chronic inflammatory diseases of the colon, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, can increase your risk of colon cancer.
- Inherited syndromes that increase colon cancer risk. Genetic syndromes passed through generations of your family can increase your risk of colon cancer. These syndromes include familial adenomatous polyposis and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, which is also known as Lynch syndrome.
- Family history of colon cancer. You’re more likely to develop colon cancer if you have a parent, sibling or child with the disease. If more than one family member has colon cancer or rectal cancer, your risk is even greater.
- Low-fiber, high-fat diet. Colon cancer and rectal cancer may be associated with a diet low in fiber and high in fat and calories. Research in this area has had mixed results. Some studies have found an increased risk of colon cancer in people who eat diets high in red meat and processed meat.
- A sedentary lifestyle. If you’re inactive, you’re more likely to develop colon cancer. Getting regular physical activity may reduce your risk of colon cancer.
- Diabetes. People with diabetes and insulin resistance may have an increased risk of colon cancer.
- Obesity. People who are obese have an increased risk of colon cancer and an increased risk of dying of colon cancer when compared with people considered normal weight.
- Smoking. People who smoke may have an increased risk of colon cancer.
- Alcohol. Heavy use of alcohol may increase your risk of colon cancer.
- Radiation therapy for cancer. Radiation therapy directed at the abdomen to treat previous cancers may increase the risk of colon cancer.
The type of treatment your doctor recommends will depend largely on the stage of your cancer. The three primary treatment options are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
Surgery for early-stage colon cancer
If your colon cancer is very small, your doctor may recommend a minimally invasive approach to surgery, such as:
- Removing polyps during colonoscopy. If your cancer is small, localized in a polyp and in a very early stage, your doctor may be able to remove it completely during a colonoscopy.
- Endoscopic mucosal resection. Removing larger polyps may require also taking a small amount of the lining of the colon in a procedure called endoscopic mucosal resection.
- Minimally invasive surgery. Polyps that can’t be removed during colonoscopy may be removed using laparoscopic surgery. In this procedure, your surgeon performs the operation through several small incisions in your abdominal wall, inserting instruments with attached cameras that display your colon on a video monitor. The surgeon may also take samples from lymph nodes in the area where the cancer is located.
Surgery for invasive colon cancer
If your colon cancer has grown into or through your colon, your surgeon may recommend:
- Partial colectomy. During this procedure, the surgeon removes the part of your colon that contains the cancer, along with a margin of normal tissue on either side of the cancer. Your surgeon is often able to reconnect the healthy portions of your colon or rectum.
- Surgery to create a way for waste to leave your body. When it’s not possible to reconnect the healthy portions of your colon or rectum, you may need to have a permanent or temporary colostomy. This involves creating an opening in the wall of your abdomen from a portion of the remaining bowel for the elimination of body waste into a special bag.Sometimes the colostomy is only temporary, allowing your colon or rectum time to heal after surgery. In some cases, however, the colostomy may be permanent.
- Lymph node removal. Nearby lymph nodes are usually also removed during colon cancer surgery and tested for cancer.
Surgery for advanced cancer
If your cancer is very advanced or your overall health very poor, your surgeon may recommend an operation to relieve a blockage of your colon or other conditions in order to improve your symptoms. This surgery isn’t done to cure cancer, but instead to relieve signs and symptoms, such as bleeding and pain.
In specific cases where the cancer has spread only to the liver and if your overall health is otherwise good, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the cancerous lesion from your liver. Chemotherapy may be used before or after this type of surgery. This treatment may improve your prognosis.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy for colon cancer is usually given after surgery if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. In this way, chemotherapy may help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Chemotherapy may be used before surgery to shrink the cancer before an operation.
Chemotherapy can also be given to relieve symptoms of colon cancer that has spread to other areas of the body.
In people with rectal cancer, chemotherapy is typically used along with radiation therapy. This combination is often used before and after surgery.
Radiation therapy uses powerful energy sources, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells that might remain after surgery, to shrink large tumors before an operation so that they can be removed more easily, or to relieve symptoms of colon cancer and rectal cancer.
Radiation therapy is rarely used in early-stage colon cancer, but is a routine part of treating rectal cancer, especially if the cancer has penetrated through the wall of the rectum or traveled to nearby lymph nodes. Radiation therapy, usually combined with chemotherapy, may be used before surgery in order to make the operation easier and to reduce the chance that an ostomy will be necessary. It can also be used after surgery to reduce the risk that the cancer may recur in the area of the rectum where it began.
Targeted drug therapy
Drugs that target specific defects that allow cancer cells to grow are available to people with advanced colon cancer, including:
- Bevacizumab (Avastin)
- Cetuximab (Erbitux)
- Panitumumab (Vectibix)
- Ramucirumab (Cyramza)
- Regorafenib (Stivarga)
- Ziv-aflibercept (Zaltrap)
Targeted drugs can be given along with chemotherapy or alone. Targeted drugs are typically reserved for people with advanced colon cancer.
Some people are helped by targeted drugs, while others are not. Researchers are working to determine who is most likely to benefit from targeted drugs. Until then, doctors carefully weigh the limited benefit of targeted drugs against the risk of side effects and the expensive cost when deciding whether to use these treatments.
Supportive (palliative) care
Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care.
When palliative care is used along with all of the other appropriate treatments, people with cancer may feel better and live longer.
Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specially trained professionals. Palliative care teams aim to improve the quality of life for people with cancer and their families. This form of care is offered alongside curative or other treatments you may be receiving.