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Colorectal Cancer

HealthIt's the type of cancer no one wants to talk about. But according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), cancers of the colon and rectum are among the most common cancers in the United States. (Read about "Cancer: What It Is") They occur in both men and women and are most often found in people who are over fifty years of age.

The colon and rectum make up the large intestine. During digestion, the colon removes nutrients from food and stores waste until the waste matter passes out of the body. (Read about "Digestive System") Cancers that occur in either part of the large intestine are termed colorectal cancer.

Risk factors

Health Assessment Our COLORECTAL CANCER RISK ASSESSMENT can help you learn more about your own risk factors, based on guidelines from the National Cancer Institute.

Simply click on the link for the form. Fill it out online to learn more about how specific things affect the risk of developing colorectal cancer. When you're done, you may want to print it out and share it with your doctor. Any information you enter will NOT be saved once you close the window. This is to protect your privacy. When you're done, simply close the form window, and continue reading.

It was originally thought that a diet low in fiber put you at a higher risk. But, according to the National Institutes of Health, recent studies have shed some doubt on this theory, although research continues. (Read about "Fiber and Health") However, the American Medical Association (AMA) says that other lifestyle factors have been linked with a higher risk, including a diet high in fat, calories and alcohol, as well as smoking and obesity. (Read about "Quit Smoking" "Obesity")

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), other known risk factors include the following: Digestive System

Reducing your risk

According to NCI, studies are now underway looking into a number of potential ways to reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer. (Read about "Clinical Studies") Among the things being examined are smoking cessation, use of dietary supplements, use of aspirin, decreased alcohol consumption and increased physical activity.

Until the results of such studies are known, the strongest weapon against colorectal cancer is early detection. Therefore, it's important to know the warning signs of colorectal cancer. ACS says these include:

If you notice such changes, see your doctor right away.

Tests and staging

ACS, the American College of Radiology and the U.S. Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer (a group that comprises representatives from the American College of Gastroenterology, American Gastroenterological Association and American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy) say there are different tests that can be used. ACS urges screening for colorectal cancer begin at age 45 for most people. Family history and other risk factors may indicate a need for earlier testing. Tests include:

Tests that detect polyps and cancer:

Tests that primarily detect cancer:

These tests work in different ways. For example, a fecal occult blood test can check for hidden blood in the stool. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), studies show a 33 percent drop in deaths from colorectal cancer for people who had an annual fecal occult blood test. (Read about "Laboratory Testing")

Flexible sigmoidoscopy uses a small lighted tube to inspect the wall of the rectum and part of the colon. The CDC says up to three quarters of polyps and 65 percent of cancers can be detected this way. For people over the age of fifty, even if they have no symptoms or known risk factors other than age, AMA recommends an annual fecal occult blood test and/or flexible sigmoidoscopy at least every five years. Higher risk individuals may need more aggressive screening; ask your doctor.

Colonoscopy, which inspects the entire colon, is also used at times. Traditional colonoscopy uses a tube with a camera and lights to inspect the colon. What is called virtual colonoscopy uses imaging techniques. In both colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy, the doctor can also take samples of tissues for more examination. (Read about "Biopsy") Doctors can also manually examine the area or use a series of x-rays using a double contrast barium enema to help outline the area on the x-rays. (Read about "X-rays")

If any of these tests indicates a potential problem, a colonoscopy is likely to be performed to confirm the diagnosis.

The doctor needs to know the stage of the disease to plan treatment. The following stages are used, according to NCI:




If cancer is present, NCI says surgery to remove the tumor is the most common treatment. Different types of surgery for this cancer include:

When a section of your colon or rectum is removed, the surgeon can usually reconnect the healthy parts. However, sometimes reconnection is not possible. In this case, NCI says the surgeon creates a new path for waste to leave your body. The surgeon makes an opening (stoma) in the wall of the abdomen, connects the upper end of the intestine to the stoma, and closes the other end. The operation to create the stoma is called a colostomy. A flat bag fits over the stoma to collect waste, and a special adhesive holds it in place. For most people, the stoma is temporary. It is needed only until the colon or rectum heals from surgery. After healing takes place, the surgeon reconnects the parts of the intestine and closes the stoma. Some people, especially those with a tumor in the lower rectum, need a permanent stoma.

In addition to surgery, chemotherapy or radiation may also be used. Biological therapy may also be an option. All treatment plans should be carefully discussed with your doctor. (Read about "Radiation Therapy" "Cancer Treatments")

As with so many other types of cancer, early detection can increase your chances of surviving colorectal cancer. Unfortunately, many people shy away from discussing this topic, even with their doctor.

More Cancer Information:

    Cancer Check-ups

    Cancer Support

    Cancer Treatments

    Reduce Cancer Risks

    Cancer Glossary

For a list of individual types of cancer, see Cancer: What It Is

All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.

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