Colorectal Cancer: Warning Signs, Prevention & Treatments

Picture of Colorectal Cancer

What is Colorectal Cancer?

The colon and the rectum are the final portions of the tube that extends from the mouth to the anus. Food enters the mouth where it is chewed and then swallowed. It then travels through the esophagus and into the stomach. In the stomach, the food is ground into smaller particles and then enters the small intestine in a carefully controlled manner.

Most colorectal cancers are adenocarcinomas (cancers that begin in cells that make and release mucus and other fluids). Colorectal cancer often begins as a growth called a polyp, which may form on the inner wall of the colon or rectum. Some polyps become cancer over time. Finding and removing polyps can prevent colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer in men and women in the United States. Deaths from colorectal cancer have decreased with the use of colonoscopies and fecal occult blood tests, which check for blood in the stool.

How Colorectal Cancer Starts?

Colorectal cancers often begin as polyps benign growths on the interior surface of the colon. The two most common types of intestinal polyps are adenomas and hyperplastic polyps. They develop when there are errors in the way cells grow and repair the lining of the colon. Most polyps remain benign, but some have the potential to turn cancerous. Removing them early prevents colorectal cancer.

Colon Cancer Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of colon cancer tend not to be specific. In other words, the signs and symptoms can occur due to a number of different conditions. When colon cancer is detected in its early stages, it may not have even caused symptoms. Symptoms can also vary according to the specific location within the colon where the tumor is located.

Some symptoms and signs of colon cancer are:

  • rectal bleeding or blood in the stool,
  • dark-colored stool,
  • change in bowel habits,
  • change in stool consistency,
  • constipation,
  • diarrhea,
  • narrow stools.

Colorectal Cancer Warning Signs

There are usually no early warning signs for colorectal cancer. For this reason it’s important to get screened. Detecting cancer early means it’s more curable. As the disease progresses, patients may notice blood in the stool, abdominal pain, a change in bowel habits (such as constipation or diarrhea), unexplained weight loss, or fatigue. By the time these symptoms appear, tumors tend to be larger and more difficult to treat.

Colorectal Cancer Screening

Because colorectal cancer is stealthy, screenings are the key to early detection. Beginning at age 50, most people should have a colonoscopy every 10 years. This procedure uses a tiny camera to examine the entire colon and rectum. These tests not only find tumors early, but can actually prevent colorectal cancer by removing polyps (shown here).

Colorectal Cancer Survival Rates

The outlook for your recovery depends on the stage of your cancer, with higher stages meaning more serious cancer. The five-year survival rate refers to the percentage of patients who live at least five years after being diagnosed. Stage I has a 74% five-year survival rate while stage IV has a five-year survival rate of only 6%.

Treating Advanced Colorectal Cancer

When colorectal cancer has spread to one or more lymph nodes (stage III), it can still sometimes be cured. Treatment typically involves a combination of surgery, radiation (being administered here), and chemotherapy. If the cancer comes back after initial treatment or spreads to other organs, it becomes much more difficult to cure. But radiation and chemotherapy may still relieve symptoms and help patients live longer.

Preventing Colorectal Cancer: Diet

There are steps you can take to dramatically reduce your odds of developing colorectal cancer. Researchers estimate that eating a nutritious diet, getting enough exercise, and controlling body fat could prevent 45% of colorectal cancers. The National Cancer Institute recommends a low-fat diet that includes plenty of fiber and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

Preventing Cancer With Exercise

Physical activity appears to be a powerful weapon in the defense against colorectal cancer. In one study, the most active participants were 24% less likely to have the cancer than the least active people. It didn’t matter whether the activity was linked to work or play. The American Cancer Society recommends exercising five or more days a week for at least 30 minutes a day.

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