Colon cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is an abnormal growth of cells within the colon. This includes the large intestine, rectum, or appendix. Most colon cancers begin with the growth of benign polyps, or non-cancerous clusters of cells. They form along the walls of the colon and are medically referred to as adenomatous polyps. The polyps may develop into colon cancer over time. It may remain on the walls of the colon or spread throughout the body. Once colon cancer has spread throughout the body, it becomes fatal and very difficult to treat.
Misdiagnosis of Colon Cancer
Most symptoms of colon cancer are vague and may not appear until later stages of the disease. This makes colon cancer problematic to diagnose without regular screenings. A sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy may provide more information and will allow for a biopsy of evolving polyps. If colon cancer is suspected, imaging tests such as CT scans, an MRI, or a PET can aid in classifying the current stage. Colon cancers that are only attached to the wall of the colon are relatively curable through surgery. A cancer that has metastasized, or spread throughout the patient’s body, is much less treatable. It is important that colon cancer is diagnosed early.
Colon cancer can be mistaken for:
- Fecal incontinence
- Benign colon polyp
- Iron deficiency
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Peritonitis, or the inflammation of the lining within the abdominal cavity
- Uremia, or excessive waste and urea in the blood stream
- Intestinal ischemia, or anemia localized within the intestines
- Celiac disease
- Kaposi sarcoma
- Stomach cancer
Symptoms of Colon Cancer
Colorectal cancer may display several elusive symptoms, involving:
- Fatigue, weakness, or exhaustion
- Unintentional weight loss
- Persistent discomfort or pain within the abdomen, such as a feeling of gas or cramps
- Change in bowel habits
- Feeling that the bowel doesn’t completely empty
- Rectal bleeding
Increased Risks and Prevention
Determining the exact cause of colon cancer is challenging. While genes may play a role, 75% to 95% of colon cancers present in people with almost zero genetic risk. Lifestyle and age are believed to have much larger impacts on the development of colorectal cancers. Regular screenings and physical activity are crucial in the prevention of colon cancer. It is important to get plenty of fruits, vegetables, fiber, vitamin D, and calcium. Eating less red meat has also been shown to reduce instances of colon cancer in patients with a predisposition towards cancer.
Major risk factors for colon cancer include:
Consuming more than 1 alcoholic beverage per day will increase patient risk of colon cancer.
The carcinogens from tobacco smoke travel throughout the body and can cause almost any form of cancer.
African-Americans are more likely to develop colon cancer than other races.
Insulin resistance can lead to an increased risk of colon cancer.
Over 50 years of age
While colon cancer may occur at any age, approximate 90% of cases occur in patients 50 years or older.
Very overweight patients not only have an increased risk of colon cancer, but also have a greater chance of dying from this type of cancer.
Low-fiber and high-fat diet
A diet with excessive caloric intake, particularly that is low in fiber or high in animal fats, is likely to lead to colon cancer.
Many people sit at desks and computers every day for work. Today’s inactive lifestyle is part of the reason why colorectal cancer rates have grown in recent years. It almost doubles a patient’s risk of colon cancer.
Personal or family history
If polyps and colon cancer are in a patient’s medical background, through personal experience or family history, chances of future polyps are greater. This also raises the likelihood of polyps developing into colon cancer.
A study conducted in 2006 discovered a link between these naturally occurring bacteria, located in the digestive system, and sporadic cases of colorectal cancer.
Certain genetic diseases increase risk of colon cancer, such as Lynch syndrome, adenomatous polyposis, and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer.
Inflammatory bowel disease
Inflammatory conditions of the colon will heighten risk for colon cancer, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Any radiation therapy for previous cancers, particularly when aimed towards the abdomen, will increase risk for colon cancer.
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Berger, B., et al. “Colon cancer cells produce immunoregulatory glucocorticoids.” Oncogene 30.21 (2011): 2411+. Academic OneFile.Web. 20 June 2012.
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“Distal colon cancer risk doubled in sedentary workers.” Nursing Standard 25.42 (2011): 15. Academic OneFile.Web. 20 June 2012.
Additional Frequently Asked Questions
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