Colon cancer develops when cells lining the inside of the colon acquire mutations. Mutations permit some cells to grow uncontrollably and invade healthy tissues anywhere within the large intestine and potentially travel to other parts of the body. Catching the disease early with preventive screening allows for effective treatment before the cancer has a chance to spread to other parts of the body.
The colon is a part of your digestive system that is sometimes referred to as the large intestine. Without a colon, you could not begin to form stool or absorb the final electrolytes and water from digested foods.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer as to why one person develops colon cancer and another does not. Colon cancer is the fourth most common cancer found in both men and women. Medical science can identify risk factors for colon cancer, meaning genetic or environmental causes that increase your chance of getting this disease. Your risk for colon cancer increases with:
- Advancing age (over 50)
- High fat, low fiber diet
- Family history of colon cancers
- Untreated polyps in the colon
- Chronic inflammatory diseases, such as Crohn's disease
- Tobacco and excessive alcohol use
- A history of previous cancers, especially reproductive
Unfortunately, the symptoms suspicious of colon cancer are also commonly attributable to other, more benign (non-cancerous) conditions. If you have concerns, talk to your doctor. Don't try to self-diagnose or second-guess your condition -- it may cause more harm than good in providing a source of unnecessary stress.
Even if you are symptom-free, maintaining your colon health starts with screening and preventive medicine. Your healthcare provider may find an irregular group of cells and treat them before they become cancerous. Many of the screening exams involve little or no discomfort and can give you quick peace of mind.
Blood tests require a blood sample from a large vein, usually in the crook of your elbow. If you have a strong family history of colon cancer, your doctor may encourage genetic testing, which is a blood test to determine your risk of developing cancer.
Stool testing can check for microscopic traces of blood. This test is not definitive for cancer; hemorrhoids and benign polyps can bleed.
Rectal exams may be completed in the doctor's office to check your rectum for any irregular growths.
Digital imaging, such as x-rays, is used to visualize all parts of the colon. You may be asked to swallow a contrast agent, like barium, or receive an enema so the soft tissues will show up on the picture.
Colonoscopy is used to visualize the inside of your colon using a tiny camera attached to a flexible device. The doctor may be able to remove polyps or take tissue samples during this procedure.
All individuals should begin preventive screening by their 50th birthday; get screened sooner if you have prevalent family history. Positive genetic markers, irregular screening exams or symptomatic concerns may precipitate early testing.
Staging and Treatment Options
Many treatment options are available, ranging from minor procedures to major surgery. Your treatment options depend on a variety of factors, including personal choice, your overall health, your medical history, and the location and stage of the cancer.
American Cancer Society. (2011). Colorectal Cancer. Can Colorectal Cancer and Polyps be Found Early? Accessed: October 20, 2011
National Institute of Health. (2008). Colorectal Cancer Screening Fact Sheet. Accessed: October 20, 2011.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Cancer Institute, and National Institute of Health. (2009). Colon Cancer: Causes, Symptoms, Signs, Diagnosis, Treatment, Stages. Everything You Need to Know About Colon Cancer.[Kindle version] Accessed: October 19, 2011 from Amazon.com.