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Published on October 25, 2021

Colon Cancer: What you need to know

colon cancer

Colon cancer, also known as bowel cancer, colorectal cancer, or rectal cancer, is any cancer that affects the colon and rectum. The colon is the last part of the digestive tract and located closest the rectum. Risk factors for colon cancer include:

  • Family history of colon cancer in a first-degree relative
  • Personal history of colon adenomas, colon cancer, or ovarian cancer
  • Hereditary conditions, including familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and Lynch syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer [HNPCC])
  • Personal history of long-standing chronic ulcerative colitis or Crohn colitis
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Race/ethnicity: African American
  • Obesity
  • Personal history of breast, uterine or ovarian cancer

While colon cancer typically impacts older adults, colon cancer can affect anyone. UNC Lenoir Health Care estimates that in 2021 there will be 104,270 new colon cancer cases; 45,230 new cases of rectal cancer; and 52,980 deaths from colon and rectal cancers combined.

These statistics are sobering, especially because colon cancer is highly curable if detected in the early stages. It most often starts as benign (noncancerous) cell clumps called polyps that form inside the colon. These polyps can become cancerous. These polyps rarely have symptoms, which is why regular health screenings that examine the colon are recommended. These screenings should be part of your preventative care routine starting at age 50 and earlier if you have a family history of colon cancer in a first-degree relative. There are several ways to screen for colon cancer, which can include a physical exam and family history, bloodwork, a colonoscopy, and a biopsy. You should discuss any concerns with your trusted physician. If you don’t have a doctor, you can find one in UNC Lenoir Health Care’s online physician directory.

ASCRS, the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, notes on its website that colon cancer is usually asymptomatic in its early stages and is detected during routine screenings. It is important to note that other common health problems can cause some of the same symptoms. For example, hemorrhoids are a common cause of rectal bleeding but do not cause colon cancer. Colon cancer symptoms include:

  • A change in bowel habits:  constipation, diarrhea, frequency of the bowel movements
  • Narrow/smaller shaped stools
  • Bright red or very dark blood in the stool
  • Ongoing abdominal or pelvic pain and bloating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Constant exhaustion

Abdominal pain and weight loss are typically late symptoms, indicating possible extensive disease. Anyone who experiences any of the above symptoms should see a physician as soon as possible. If you are diagnosed with colon cancer, your doctor can talk to you about next steps and treatment options.

You can take steps to reduce your risk of colon cancer by making healthy choices every day. Some examples of this include:

  • Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These foods contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, which may play a role in cancer prevention. Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables so that you get an array of vitamins and nutrients, and make sure you include leafy greens like spinach and kale.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. If you choose to drink alcohol, limit the amount of alcohol you drink to no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.
  • Stop smoking. Talk to your doctor about ways to quit that may work for you.
  • Exercise! Try to get your heart rate up for 30 minutes a day several times a week. Talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you are at a healthy weight, work to maintain your weight by combining a healthy diet with daily exercise. If you need to lose weight, ask your doctor about healthy ways to achieve your goal. Aim to lose weight slowly by increasing the amount of exercise you get and reducing the number of calories you eat.

Please remember that colon cancer, if caught early, is highly treatable and can often be cured so please don’t ignore screenings for it. To find a physician, or ask more about colon cancer screening, please call UNC Lenoir Health Care at 252.522.7000 or email us at nfo@lenoir.org.