What Is Colorectal Cancer?

Steven Mott by Steven Mott | Licensed since 2012
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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Colon and rectal cancer are often grouped together because they have many features in common, but are distinguished based on where they start, according to the American Cancer Society. According to the National Cancer Institute, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer (other than skin cancer) among both men and women alike. In 2017, colorectal cancer is expected to cause over 50,000 deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. However, due to improved colorectal cancer treatment, there are more than 1 million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United States.

What is colorectal cancer?

Cancer is a condition where cells begin to grow out of control, according to the National Cancer Institute. Cancer cells continue to divide without stopping and often become invasive. Cancer can cause death when cancer cells take up the space and nutrients that healthy organs need to function. Cancer metastasizes when it begins to grow a distance from the primary site. According to the National Cancer Institute, the main sites of metastasis for colorectal cancer are the liver, lungs, and peritoneum (the tissue that lines your abdominal wall and covers most of the organs).

According to the American Cancer Society, most colorectal cancer begins as a growth called a polyp on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. A polyp is a small clump of cells that may be flat or may look like a mushroom. Not all polyps become colorectal cancer. Adenomatous polyps are considered a pre-cancerous condition because they sometimes change into colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Hyperplastic polyps on the other hand, are generally not pre-cancerous. Large polyps may have a higher risk of containing cancer.

What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?

According to the Mayo Clinic, colon polyps often don’t cause symptoms of colorectal cancer. This makes it important to have regular colorectal cancer screenings, such as a colonoscopy. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a colonoscopy checks your entire colon and rectum with a tiny camera attached to a long, thin tube. Colonoscopy screenings usually start at age 50.

You also may have developed colorectal cancer and not experience any symptoms of colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Because colorectal cancers can cause bleeding in the digestive track, one of the first signs of colorectal cancer may be a blood test showing a low red blood cell count.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer may vary, but the NIH lists the following symptoms as some of the more common signs of colorectal cancer:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation lasting more than a few days
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Gas pains or cramps; feeling bloated
  • Bright red or very dark blood in the stool
  • A feeling that your bowels won’t empty
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Feeling tired all the time

Also be aware that symptoms of colorectal cancer could be signs of other conditions, such as hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome. Whatever the cause of your symptoms, see you doctor to be sure that a possible occurrence of colorectal cancer does not go untreated.

Colorectal cancer treatment

The way that colorectal cancer is treated depends on which stage it is in. Most colorectal cancer treatment involves surgery, chemotherapy, prescription drugs, or a combination of all three. Stage zero colon cancer is cancer that has not grown outside the inner lining of the colon. Stage zero colon cancer can usually be treated by surgery, sometimes with a colonoscope to remove polyps, according to the American Cancer Society. This way, the doctor does not have to cut into abdomen to perform colorectal cancer treatment.

Stage I and Stage II colorectal cancer treatment may be performed with a partial colectomy, according to the American Cancer Society. A partial colectomy removes the section of the colon with the cancer as well as nearby lymph nodes. For treatment of stage II colon cancer, the doctor may recommend chemotherapy after surgery.

Stage III colon cancer is defined as cancer that has spread to nearby lymph nodes but has not yet spread to other parts of the body. Stage III colon cancer is usually treated with both surgery and chemotherapy and radiation.

Stage IV colon cancer has spread from the colon to distant organs and tissues and surgery is less likely to cure the cancer at this stage, according to the American Cancer Society. Patients with stage IV colon cancer often receive chemotherapy and targeted therapy for colorectal cancer treatment. Target therapy uses prescription drugs to more precisely identify and attack cancer cells, according to the American Cancer Society.

Colorectal cancer: Who is at risk

Colorectal cancer does not discriminate by gender; both men and women get it at similar rates. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists some of the risk factors for colorectal cancer as:

  • Age (50 or older)
  • Personal or family history of colorectal polyps, colorectal cancer, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease
  • Certain genetic syndromes (such as Lynch syndrome)

Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that there’s no clear link between diet and colorectal cancer, the CDC reports that eating foods that are high in fat and low in fiber might contribute to your risk. Both agencies agree that smoking and drinking alcohol may also be risk factors.

If you or someone you’re caring for is undergoing colorectal cancer treatment, adequate coverage can help you manage your health costs and make sure you’re able to get the care you need. If you have any questions, we’re here to help. To get help over the phone or by email, use the links below to have me contact you. If you’d like to browse Medicare plan options on your own, just use the Compare Plans buttons on this page.

This article provides general information, and is not a substitute for medical advice.  Only a licensed medical professional can diagnose and treat medical conditions such as cancer.

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