Colon cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the large intestine (colon). The colon is the final part of the digestive tract.
Colon cancer typically affects older adults, though it can happen at any age. It usually begins as small, noncancerous (benign) clumps of cells called polyps that form on the inside of the colon. Over time some of these polyps can become colon cancers.
Polyps may be small and produce few, if any, symptoms. For this reason, doctors recommend regular screening tests to help prevent colon cancer by identifying and removing polyps before they turn into cancer.
If colon cancer develops, many treatments are available to help control it, including surgery, radiation therapy and drug treatments, such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
Colon cancer is sometimes called colorectal cancer, which is a term that combines colon cancer and rectal cancer, which begins in the rectum.
Colon cancer can occur in any part of the colon. An examination of your entire colon using a long, flexible tube equipped with a camera (colonoscopy) is one way to detect colon cancer and polyps.
Signs and symptoms of colon cancer include:
Many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. When symptoms appear, they'll likely vary, depending on the cancer's size and location in your large intestine.
If you notice any persistent symptoms that worry you, make an appointment with your doctor.
Talk with your doctor about when to begin colon cancer screening. Guidelines generally recommend that colon cancer screenings begin around 50. Your doctor may recommend more frequent or earlier screening if you have other risk factors, such as a family history of the disease.
Doctors aren't certain what causes most colon cancers.
In general, colon cancer begins when healthy cells in the colon develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell's DNA contains a set of instructions that tell a cell what to do.
Healthy cells grow and divide in an orderly way to keep your body functioning normally. But when a cell's DNA is damaged and becomes cancerous, cells continue to divide — even when new cells aren't needed. As the cells accumulate, they form a tumor.
With time, the cancer cells can grow to invade and destroy normal tissue nearby. And cancerous cells can travel to other parts of the body to form deposits there (metastasis).
Factors that may increase your risk of colon cancer include:
Doctors recommend that people with an average risk of colon cancer consider colon cancer screening around age 50. But people with an increased risk, such as those with a family history of colon cancer, should consider screening sooner.
Several screening options exist — each with its own benefits and drawbacks. Talk about your options with your doctor, and together you can decide which tests are appropriate for you.
You can take steps to reduce your risk of colon cancer by making changes in your everyday life. Take steps to:
Some medications have been found to reduce the risk of precancerous polyps or colon cancer. For instance, some evidence links a reduced risk of polyps and colon cancer to regular use of aspirin or aspirin-like drugs. But it's not clear what dose and what length of time would be needed to reduce the risk of colon cancer. Taking aspirin daily has some risks, including gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcers.
These options are generally reserved for people with a high risk of colon cancer. There isn't enough evidence to recommend these medications to people who have an average risk of colon cancer.
If you have an increased risk of colon cancer, discuss your risk factors with your doctor to determine whether preventive medications are safe for you.
Doctors recommend certain screening tests for healthy people with no signs or symptoms in order to look for signs of colon cancer or noncancerous colon polyps. Finding colon cancer at its earliest stage provides the greatest chance for a cure. Screening has been shown to reduce your risk of dying of colon cancer.
Doctors generally recommend that people with an average risk of colon cancer begin screening around age 50. But people with an increased risk, such as those with a family history of colon cancer or African-American heritage, should consider screening sooner.
Several screening options exist — each with its own benefits and drawbacks. Talk about your options with your doctor, and together you can decide which tests are appropriate for you. If a colonoscopy is used for screening, polyps can be removed during the procedure before they turn into cancer.
If your signs and symptoms indicate that you could have colon cancer, your doctor may recommend one or more tests and procedures, including:
Blood tests. No blood test can tell you if you have colon cancer. But your doctor may test your blood for clues about your overall health, such as kidney and liver function tests.
Your doctor may also test your blood for a chemical sometimes produced by colon cancers (carcinoembryonic antigen, or CEA). Tracked over time, the level of CEA in your blood may help your doctor understand your prognosis and whether your cancer is responding to treatment.
If you've been diagnosed with colon cancer, your doctor may recommend tests to determine the extent (stage) of your cancer. Staging helps determine what treatments are most appropriate for you.
Staging tests may include imaging procedures such as abdominal, pelvic and chest CT scans. In many cases, the stage of your cancer may not be fully determined until after colon cancer surgery.
The stages of colon cancer are indicated by Roman numerals that range from 0 to IV, with the lowest stages indicating cancer that is limited to the lining of the inside of the colon. By stage IV, the cancer is considered advanced and has spread (metastasized) to other areas of the body.
During a colonoscopy, the doctor inserts a colonoscope into your rectum to check for abnormalities in your entire colon.
At its earliest stage (stage 0), colon cancer is limited to the inner lining of your colon. As colon cancer progresses, it can grow through your colon and extend to nearby structures. The most advanced stage of colon cancer (stage IV) indicates cancer has spread to other areas of the body, such as the liver or lungs.
Which treatments are most likely to help you depends on your particular situation, including the location of your cancer, its stage and your other health concerns. Treatment for colon cancer usually involves surgery to remove the cancer. Other treatments, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, might also be recommended.
If your colon cancer is very small, your doctor may recommend a minimally invasive approach to surgery, such as:
If the cancer has grown into or through your colon, your surgeon may recommend:
Surgery to create a way for waste to leave your body. When it's not possible to reconnect the healthy portions of your colon or rectum, you may need an ostomy. This involves creating an opening in the wall of your abdomen from a portion of the remaining bowel for the elimination of stool into a bag that fits securely over the opening.
Sometimes the ostomy is only temporary, allowing your colon or rectum time to heal after surgery. In some cases, however, the colostomy may be permanent.
If your cancer is very advanced or your overall health very poor, your surgeon may recommend an operation to relieve a blockage of your colon or other conditions in order to improve your symptoms. This surgery isn't done to cure cancer, but instead to relieve signs and symptoms, such as a blockage, bleeding or pain.
In specific cases where the cancer has spread only to the liver or lung but your overall health is otherwise good, your doctor may recommend surgery or other localized treatments to remove the cancer. Chemotherapy may be used before or after this type of procedure. This approach provides a chance to be free of cancer over the long term.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy for colon cancer is usually given after surgery if the cancer is larger or has spread to the lymph nodes. In this way, chemotherapy may kill any cancer cells that remain in the body and help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.
Chemotherapy might also be used before an operation to shrink a large cancer so that it's easier to remove with surgery.
Chemotherapy can also be used to relieve symptoms of colon cancer that can't be removed with surgery or that has spread to other areas of the body. Sometimes it's combined with radiation therapy.
For some people with low-risk stage III colon cancer, a shorter course of chemotherapy after surgery may be possible. This approach may reduce the side effects compared with the traditional course of chemotherapy, and may be just as effective.
Radiation therapy uses powerful energy sources, such as X-rays and protons, to kill cancer cells. It might be used to shrink a large cancer before an operation so that it can be removed more easily.
When surgery isn't an option, radiation therapy might be used to relieve symptoms, such as pain. Sometimes radiation is combined with chemotherapy.
Targeted drug treatments focus on specific abnormalities present within cancer cells. By blocking these abnormalities, targeted drug treatments can cause cancer cells to die.
Targeted drugs are usually combined with chemotherapy. Targeted drugs are typically reserved for people with advanced colon cancer.
Immunotherapy is a drug treatment that uses your immune system to fight cancer. Your body's disease-fighting immune system may not attack your cancer because the cancer cells produce proteins that blind the immune system cells from recognizing the cancer cells. Immunotherapy works by interfering with that process.
Immunotherapy is usually reserved for advanced colon cancer. Your doctor might have your cancer cells tested to see if they're likely to respond to this treatment.
Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specially trained professionals that work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care.
Palliative care teams aim to improve the quality of life for people with cancer and their families. This form of care is offered alongside curative or other treatments you may be receiving.
When palliative care is used along with all of the other appropriate treatments, people with cancer may feel better and live longer.
During a partial colectomy, a surgeon removes the diseased portion of your colon and a small portion of surrounding healthy tissue. The surgeon may join the cut ends of the colon so that waste leaves your body normally. Or it might be necessary to connect the colon to an opening (stoma) in the abdominal wall, where waste leaves the body and collects in a bag attached to the opening. A stoma is usually temporary, but is sometimes permanent.
A cancer diagnosis can be emotionally challenging. In time, people learn to cope in their own unique ways. Until you find what works for you, you might try to:
Find someone to talk with. Find a good listener who is willing to listen to you talk about your hopes and fears. This may be a friend or family member. The concern and understanding of a counselor, medical social worker, clergy member or cancer support group also may be helpful.
Ask your doctor about support groups in your area or contact a cancer organization, such as the National Cancer Institute or the American Cancer Society.
If your doctor suspects you may have colon cancer, you'll likely be referred to specialists who treat colon cancer. You may meet with a number of specialists, including a:
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well-prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and know what to expect from your doctor.
Some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow time to cover other points you want to address. Your doctor may ask: