The colon is another term for the large intestine, it is the lowest part of the digestive system. Inside the colon, water and salt from solid wastes are extracted before the waste moves through the rectum and exits the body through the anus.
Colon cancer or colorectal cancer starts in the large intestine or in the rectum. It is treatable when caught early, but it’s still the third most common type of cancer in men and women in the United States. Most colorectal cancers begin in cells that make and release mucus and other fluids, causing a tumor to form in the lining of the large intestine. Being aware of the risk factors, signs and symptoms of this cancer is important for prevention and early detection.
Normal cells in the body follow an orderly path of growth, division, and death. Cancer is ultimately the result of cells that uncontrollably grow and do not die. Programmed cell death is called apoptosis, and when this process breaks down cancer results. Colon cancer cells do not die in the normal way, but instead, continue to grow and divide. Although scientists do not know exactly what causes these cells to behave this way, they have identified several potential risk factors:
Risk Factors for Colon Cancer
An early diagnosis can often lead to a complete cure, but there are several risk factors to be aware of. Risk factors include:
- Being overweight – being overweight or obese increases the risk of colorectal cancer in both men and women.
- Physical inactivity – increasing your level of physical activity lowers your risk. Regular to moderate exercise will help keep your heart and body healthy.
- Diet – Diets that are higher in fruits, vegetables and whole grains have been linked with a lower risk of colorectal cancer. Lowering your red and processed meat intake may also lower your risk.
- Alcohol – several studies have found a higher risk of colorectal cancer with increased alcohol intake, especially among men.
- Polyps – Colon cancer usually derives from precancerous polyps that exist in the large intestine. The most common types of polyps are:
- Adenomas: can become cancerous but are usually removed during colonoscopy
- Hyperplastic polyps: rarely become colon cancer
- Inflammatory polyps: usually occur after inflammation of the colon (colitis) and may become cancerous
- Genes – Cells can experience uncontrolled growth if there is damage or mutations to DNA, and therefore, damage to the genes involved in cell division. Cancer occurs when a cell’s gene mutations make the cell unable to correct DNA damage and unable to commit suicide. Similarly, cancer is a result of mutations that inhibit certain gene functions, leading to uncontrollable cell growth. Cancer can be the result of a genetic predisposition that is inherited from family members. It is possible to be born with certain genetic mutations or a fault in a gene that makes one statistically more likely to develop cancer later in life.
Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer
Symptoms of an illness or disease are your body’s way of letting you know that something is wrong. Common symptoms of colon cancer to be aware of and watch out for include:
- Blood in your stool or bleeding from your rectum — Any amount or color of bleeding can be an early sign, so make sure you see a health care professional right away if you are experiencing this symptom.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- An ongoing bloated feeling, cramping or pain in your abdomen.
- Constant tiredness and weakness.
- A change in bowel habits that lasts for more than a few days, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrow stools.
- A feeling that doesn’t subside that you need to have a bowel movement, even after you’ve gone to the bathroom.
- Jaundice (a yellow or green coloring of the skin and the white part of the eye).
Other conditions such as infections, hemorrhoids or irritable bowel disease can cause similar symptoms, so be sure to visit a doctor if these symptoms arise. Awareness is the first step to prevention.
It is important to be aware of the signs and seek medical help as soon as possible!
Colon cancer is the third most common cause of cancer death in the U.S., and it is the second most prevalent type of cancer. Regular annual screening for both men and women aged 50 to 75 years is recommended by the U.S. Preventive Task Force.
The American Cancer Society suggests screening tests, particularly colonoscopy, for early detection of colon cancer. Colonoscopy is the best method, because it will visualize the entire colon and can remove polyps during the procedure. Other screening tests include fecal occult blood tests (annually), stool DNA testing, flexible sigmoidoscopy (every 5 years), and CT colonography (every 5 years).
These frequency recommendations depend, however, on a person’s particular risk of colon cancer due to other risk factors.
In general, physicians recommend standard preventive measures such as keeping a healthy weight, exercising, and increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while decreasing saturated fat and red meat intake. In addition, people are recommended to limit alcohol consumption and quit smoking.
Dr. Felice Schnoll-Sussman, a gastroenterologist from the NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, said that it is important for people to realize that with proper screening, colon cancer cannot only be detected early, but may also be prevented from developing.