What is Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer describes cancer that starts in the colon. Colon cancer begins as a small growth called polyps on the inside lining of the colon. Some types of these polyps may change over time and become cancerous, specifically, adenomatous polyps (adenomas). Traditional serrated adenomas and sessile serrated polyps can also become colon cancers. Hyperplastic polyps don’t become cancerous except in rare conditions.
Colon cancer is treatable and can be cured if diagnosed early enough when confined to the bowel. Screening for colon cancer is vital for early diagnosis. Talk to your gastroenterologist, about screening for colon cancer.
Types of Colon Cancer
There are several types of colon cancer, including:
- Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of colon cancer.
- Carcinoid tumors are uncommon
- Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) are quite rare in the colon
- Lymphomas are cancers of the immune system which can sometimes start in the colon or other organs
- Sarcomas that start in the colon or rectum are rare
Stages of Colon Cancer
If you have been diagnosed with colon cancer, you will have tests to determine if cancer cells have spread within the colon or to other parts of the body.
The following stages are used for colon cancer:
- Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ) colon cancer is found only in the innermost lining of the colon, called the mucosa
- Stage I: Cancer has spread beyond the inner lining but remains within the colon and has not spread to the lymph nodes
- Stage II: Colon cancer has spread through the thick outer muscle layer of the colon but has not spread to the lymph nodes
- Stage III: Colon cancer has spread outside the colon to one or more lymph nodes
- Stage IV: Colon cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver, lungs, and/or peritoneal cavity. The cancer may be in the lymph nodes. When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis.
Understanding that colon cancer can come back (recur) after treatment is important.
Signs & Symptoms of Colon Cancer
Many people with colon cancer don’t have symptoms in the early stages of the condition, but as cancer progresses, symptoms ensue. Symptoms may vary depending on tumor size and its location in the large intestine.
Colon cancer symptoms may include:
- Persistent change in bowel habits: diarrhea, constipation, and narrow stool, which may last for a while (more than a few days)
- Not being able to have a bowel movement (different than constipation)
- Rectal bleeding or bright red blood
- Blood in the stool, which appears dark brown or black
- Abdominal pain and cramps
- Unintentional weight loss
Causes & Risk Factors for Colon Cancer
There are risk factors that are associated with colon cancer. Some risk factors for developing colon cancer cannot be changed, while other factors can be changed.
Risk factors for developing colon cancer that cannot be changed. These include:
- Age – older people are at a higher risk of developing colon cancer
- Inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
- Personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
- Genetic tendencies including familial adenomatous polyposis, Lynch syndrome, MUTYH polyposis, juvenile polyposis, Peutz-Jegher’s, Cowden’s
Risk factors that can be changed, at least to some degree. These include:
- Sedentary lifestyle: Increase your physical activity to reduce colon cancer risk
- Diet: Diets high in red and processed meat increase your risk of developing colon cancer. Diets which include a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may lower your risk of developing colon cancer.
- Obesity: Maintaining a healthy weight significantly reduces your risk of developing colon cancer
- Smoking: Tobacco use is known increase the risk of developing certain cancers, including lung and colon cancer. If you smoke, consider ways to quit.
- Alcohol consumption: Drinking alcohol raises your risk of developing cancer. Minimize alcohol consumption to reduce the risk of colon cancer and other types of cancer.
How to Prevent Colon Cancer
There is no known way to prevent colon cancer that is related to factors that cannot be changed, including age, personal and family history, and certain conditions. For risk factors that can be changed, making some lifestyle changes may reduce the risks of developing colon cancer.
Lifestyle changes to reduce risks of developing colon cancer:
- Physical activity - increase your physical activity, exercise and movement have many benefits.
- Diet - Eat a fiber rich diet which includes plenty of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains and eat less red and processed meat
- Weight - Maintain healthy weight
- Smoking - If you smoke, consider ways to quit
- Alcohol consumption - Consume alcohol in moderation
Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Colon Cancer Care
At NewYork-Presbyterian, our primary goal is to cure your colon cancer, and we provide the best treatment available and the care you need to speed up your recovery. Learn more about the options for colon cancer treatment available at NewYork-Presbyterian and about other types of gastrointestinal cancers treated by NewYork-Presbyterian.