The third most common cancer today is colorectal cancer; colorectal cancer is also the third most common type of non-skin cancer in men after prostate cancer, and lung caner. Although this type of cancer usually presents in people over 50 years of age, it can happen to younger generations; and cases of colon cancer (appearing in those under 50 years of age) have been on the rise.
We’ve all heard of colorectal cancer, but what is it? Colorectal cancer is cancer of the rectum, or colon; where normal cells become abnormal and begin to divide uncontrollably. These abnormal cells usually grow into a large mass, that we commonly call a ‘tumor’. Colorectal cancer cells can also begin invading other healthy cells and damage or destroy the surrounding tissue. These damaged cells can also break away from the tumor and spread to other parts of the body, creating new tumors. Because colorectal cancer can go undetected for long periods of time, it is becoming the second leading cause of cancer death in America.
Colon caner can be very difficult to diagnose because its initial symptoms can be very slight or in some cases may not present at all. Sometimes, symptoms only seem to appear once it has progressed to an advanced stage. The earlier you can diagnose your symptoms, the better your chances of catching your cancer before it reaches more serious stage. Some over-looked symptoms include:
- Blood in your stool: though this is a common symptom of colon cancer, you can’t always see the blood you are passing in your stool.
- Thin stools: very thin or “ribbon like” stools (in some cases as thin as a pencil) may indicate an obstruction, or some other problem stopping the passage of stool through the colon- like polyps, hemorrhoids or a cancerous mass.
- Constipation: though constipation may be a symptom of many things, chronic constipation can be a serious health concern, and may be a symptom of colon obstruction. It is important to let your doctor know if your condition persists.
- Feeling like you have to empty your bowel- even if you don’t: if you feel like there is always something left in your bowel, or if you feel like you have to go even when you don’t this could indicate the presence of a tumor.
- Abdominal pain: this symptom can occur for many reasons, but could also occur if the colon is blocked. Gas pains are also a common symptom because of tumor obstructions don’t allow gas to properly move through the colon.
- Fatigue: fatigue can be brought on by many things, but fatigue that lasts more than a few days can be a sign of a medical problem. Fatigue brought on by colon cancer is usually a sign of anemia- which can be caused by blood loss in the stool.
Because colorectal cancer is so difficult to pin down by symptoms alone, it is important to talk to your doctor about any problems you may have. It is easy to be embarrassed when talking to your doctor about bowel movements, but it is vital that you discuss ANY problems you may be experiencing. Delaying a conversation with your doctor based on embarrassment could be the difference between preventable polyps or stage 1 cancer. Your doctor may be able to provide you with screening options that will detect colon cancer in its earliest stages. Some of those screening options are:
- Fecal occult blood testing: checks for blood in the stool that you may not be able to see
- Sigmoidoscopy: a sigmoidoscope (a lighted instrument) is inserted into the rectum to examine the rectum and lower colon for polyps or abnormal growths.
- Colonoscopy: a lighted colonoscope is inserted into the rectum to examine the rectum and run the entire length of the colon. This can find abnormalities anywhere in the entire colon.
- Virtual colonoscopy: specialized x-ray equipment is used to create pictures of the colon and rectum. Computer software is used to assemble detailed photos to show polyps and other abnormalities in the colon.
Screening is vital in detecting colon cancer especially because colorectal cancer causes are not entirely known to us. The causes of colon cancer are not clear in most cases- beyond knowing that once normal cells, have suddenly become abnormal, so doctors look to risk factors to determine what steps should be taken. Some suspected risk factors that can increase your chance of cancer:
- Old age: About 90% 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 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: Long-standing 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 and colon polyps: 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. In some cases, this connection may not be hereditary or genetic. Instead, cancers within the same family may result from shared exposure to an environmental carcinogen or from diet or lifestyle factors.
- 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 meats.
- 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 cigarettes 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.
If you feel you have any of these risk factors or suspect any abnormalities in your body, consult with your doctor immediately. Colon and rectal cancer can be treated and if found before reaching stage IV, has a survival rate of 60-75%. With new screening procedures it is easier than ever to prevent this cancer; get screened and listen to your body.
*Information gathered from:
Special note to Chris: kick this cancer’s ass, my friend.