Colon, or colorectal cancer, is a gastrointestinal cancer that starts in the large intestine (colon) or the rectum (end of the colon).

In the United States, colorectal cancer is one of the leading causes of deaths due to cancer. Early diagnosis can often lead to a complete cure.

There is no single cause of colon cancer. Nearly all colon cancers begin as noncancerous (benign) polyps, which slowly develop into cancer.

Reduce the Risk of Colon Cancer

You can reduce your risk of colon cancer in the following ways:

  • Eat a high-fiber, low-fat diet that contains lots of grains, fruits and vegetables
  • Limit how much meat you eat
  • Avoid processed food
  • Use olive oil for cooking
  • Quit smoking
  • Exercise regularly

Symptoms

Screening is especially important in detecting colon cancer because sometimes the disease progresses without symptoms or the symptoms are attributed to other causes. For example, some patients bleed internally, but they don't realize they're losing blood until a routine medical exam shows anemia.

Symptoms can include:

  • Constipation
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloody stool

Colon Cancer Diagnosis

Through screening tests, it is possible to detect colon cancer before symptoms develop.

Although a physical exam rarely shows any problems, your doctor may feel a lump or mass in the abdomen. A rectal exam may reveal a mass in people with rectal cancer, but not colon cancer.

A fecal occult blood test may detect small amounts of blood in the stool. This may suggest colon cancer. A sigmoidoscopy, or more likely, a colonoscopy, will be done to evaluate the cause of blood in your stool.

Only a full colonoscopy can see the entire colon. Colon cancer can almost always be caught by colonoscopy in its earliest and most curable stages. Almost all men and women age 50 and older should have a colon cancer screening. People at higher risk may need earlier screening.

Colon cancer screening can often find polyps before they become cancerous. Removing these polyps may prevent colon cancer.

In most cases, unless a cancer or a polyp is found, you won't need a colonoscopy again for ten years.

Although the preparation the night before a colonoscopy is unpleasant, you'll be sedated for the procedure itself. You won't feel the probe or know that anyone is taking a picture of the inside of your colon.

Multidisciplinary Approach to Colon Cancer Treatment

Treatment for colon cancer begins with surgery. A surgeon removes the cancerous portion of the colon.

For each colon cancer case, the cancer is described as Stage I, II, III or IV.

Stage I

  • Cancer has not invaded the muscular layer of the colon wall
  • Does not require further treatment after surgery

Stage II

  • Cancer has fully invaded the colon wall
  • Cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes

Patients with Stage II colon cancer have to decide whether to get chemotherapy. In eighty percent of those cases, surgery alone will prevent recurrence. But that means that twenty percent of these patients will suffer recurrence without chemotherapy. In some cases, testing of the tumor can identify cancers likely to recur. But in other cases, patients must weigh the side effects of chemotherapy against the risk of recurrence.

Stage III

  • Cancer has spread to local lymph nodes

Stage IV

  • Cancer has spread to another organ

At the Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center, management of gastrointestinal cancers focuses on preventive measures, early detection and the most advanced forms of treatment.

Some of these cancers are among the most complex and difficult to treat, and patients can take comfort in knowing they are being treated by a team of specialists that is among the most experienced in the country.

It is because of our multidisciplinary approach to cancer treatment, that we have been designated by the National Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of only 41 in the country.