What Are Colorectal Cancers?
Colon cancer is cancer of the colon (large intestine), and rectal cancer is cancer of the rectum (the last several inches of the colon). Together, these two diseases are typically referred to as colorectal cancers.
In most cases, colon cancer is the result of benign polyps that become cancerous over time. Regular screenings are recommended as a preventative measure against colon cancer to identify polyps early.
Other factors that may increase the risk for developing colorectal cancers include:
- A personal history of colorectal cancers or polyps. If a patient had a colorectal cancer or polyps in the past, there is an increased risk for developing one of the colorectal cancers in the future
- A sedentary lifestyle. Lack of activity can increase risk
- Age. Most patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer are 50 years of age and older. The disease occurs less frequently in younger patients
- Alcohol. Heavily consuming alcohol may increase a patient’s risk
- Diabetes. Patients with diabetes and insulin resistance (IR) have an increased risk
- Diet. A low-fiber, high-fat diet may be associated with developing colorectal cancers
- Family history of colorectal cancers and polyps. Patients with a parent, sibling or child with one of the diseases may also be a risk. The risk becomes greater when more than one family member has had it
- Genetic syndromes. Certain genetic syndromes, such as adenomatous polyposis and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (also known as Lynch syndrome) can escalate risk
- Inflammatory intestinal conditions. Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, may also increase risk
- Obesity. Patients who are obese not only have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancers but of dying of them as well
- Race. African-Americans have a greater risk of colorectal cancers than other races
- Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy for other cancers of the abdomen may increase a patient’s chances of developing colorectal cancers
- Smoking. Patients who smoke cigarettes are more likely to develop colorectal cancers than those who do not
What Are the Symptoms of Colorectal Cancers?
Many patients with colorectal cancers do not experience symptoms when the diseases are in their early stages. When symptoms do appear, they may vary depending upon the size and location within the large intestine.
- Changes in your bowel movements, such as diarrhea, constipation or consistency of stool
- Persistent abdominal distress, such as cramps, gas or pain
- Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool (aka bloody stool)
- The sensation that your bowel doesn’t empty completely after a bowel movement
- Unexplained or unintentional weight loss
- Weakness or fatigue
What Are the Treatments for Colorectal Cancers?
Treatments for these conditions largely depend on what stage the cancers are in. They include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
If the cancer is small, contained within a polyp and in its earliest stages, a physician may be able to remove it during a colonoscopy. A larger polyp may require an endoscopic mucosal resection (EMR). Polyps that can’t be removed through a colonoscopy or EMR may be removed through laparoscopic surgery.
If the cancer has grown into or through the large intestine, a colectomy may be recommended to remove the infected portion. The surgeon is often able to reconnect healthy ends together. If not, patients may require a temporary or permanent colostomy, where waste from the bowels is eliminated into a bag outside of the body.
For cancer that is is advanced or has left the patient in overall poor health, a procedure to relieve blockage of the colon may be recommended. This is not performed to cure or remove the cancer but rather to alleviate symptoms, such as pain or bleeding.
Chemotherapy is typically given to patients following surgery if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Doing so may reduce the risk of the cancer reoccurring. It may also be used to relieve symptoms if the cancer has spread. Sometimes, it is given before an operation to shrink the cancer.
Radiation therapy, usually only used for rectal cancer, harnesses the power of energy sources (e.g., X-rays) to:
- Destroy any post-surgery cancer cells that might remain
- Relieve the symptoms of colorectal cancers
- Shrink large tumors prior to surgery