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Colorectal Cancer

The first Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month took place in March 2000. Now in its 18th year, Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is an opportunity for patients, family members, doctors, and caregivers to bring awareness to the fourth most common type of cancer in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 141,000 people learn that they have colorectal cancer every year. Participants in the awareness campaign often wear blue and participate in various fundraising events to raise money for research and treatment.

Colorectal cancer is a term that describes both cancers of the rectum and cancer of the colon. Although separate diseases, many doctors, and patients refer to both with this term. Of the two, rectal cancer is more difficult to diagnose and treat. Colon cancer has a high survival rate when detected and treated before it reaches Stage IV. The diagnosis depends on where in your body cancer originates. Colon and rectal cancer also share many similar symptoms.

Understanding the Anatomy of the Colon and Rectum

The colon and rectum are both essential parts of your digestive system, also referred to as the gastrointestinal system. They sit inside of your large intestine and the colon takes up most of the space. If it was possible to stretch your colon out flat, it would measure approximately five feet. The colon has four sections, each of which get their name depending on how food travels as it enters the digestive tract.

These include:

  • Ascending colon: This contains the cecum, a small pouch that receives food you have not yet digested from your small intestine. It extends in an upward motion on the right side of your abdomen.
  • Transverse colon: This section of your colon travels across your body from the right side to the left side.
  • Descending colon: The name for this part of your colon refers to the fact that it travels downward on the left side.
  • Sigmoid colon: Named for its S shape, the sigmoid colon meets up with the rectum. The rectum then connects to the anus.

Collectively, doctors refer to the ascending and transverse sections of the colon as the proximal colon and the descending and sigmoid sections as the distal colon.

Your colon absorbs salt and water remaining in undigested food after it travels through your small intestine. Any remaining waste material travels to the rectum, which makes up the last six inches of your digestive tract. It remains there until you expel it from your body through the anus when you defecate.

Specific Types of Cancer of the Colon and Rectum

More than 95 percent of all types of colorectal cancers are adenocarcinomas. These cancerous tumors originate in cells that produce mucus to lubricate the inside of your rectum and colon. The types of colorectal cancers that make up the remaining five percent include carcinoid, gastrointestinal stromal tumors, lymphoma, and sarcomas.

Common Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer

Sometimes the symptoms of colorectal cancer don’t appear right away. However, we urge you to schedule an appointment for screening if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Bright red blood that originates from the rectum
  • Blood mixed in with your stool, which can make it appear darker than normal
  • A sudden change in your bowel habits that lasts for more than several days, such as diarrhea, constipation, or thinner stools
  • A feeling of pressure that you need to empty your bowels but not feeling relief when you do
  • Unintentional weight loss

These symptoms can also indicate a less serious condition, including hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome, or an infection. However, it’s still important to rule out colorectal cancer so you can get the appropriate treatment for the condition that you do have.

Risk Factors and Prevention Strategies for Colorectal Cancer

The risk factors for colorectal cancer include both lifestyle factors that you can change and genetic and other factors that you can’t change. For example, being overweight or obese is a leading cause of this type of cancer. You can reduce your risk of developing it by losing weight. Other lifestyle factors associated with colorectal cancer include low levels of physical activity, a diet high in processed or red meats, low intake of fiber, heavy consumption of alcohol, and smoking.

Colorectal cancer is more common in men and women over age 50 than it is in younger people. You also have an increased risk if you have had colorectal cancer in the past, currently have inflammatory bowel disease or polyps, have Type II diabetes, or are of African American heritage. Finally, those with a family history of adenomatous polyps or colorectal cancer or an inherited syndrome have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer as well. The specific syndromes associated with the disease include:

  • Familial adenomatous polyposis
  • Lynch syndrome
  • MUTYH-associated polyposis
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
  • Turcot syndrome

The best thing you can do to reduce your risk of developing colon or rectal cancer is to consume a healthy diet, not smoke, drink alcohol only in moderation, and lead an active lifestyle. If you need help implementing any of these changes, ask your primary care provider for resources.

It’s also important to receive regular screenings for colorectal cancer. The Colorectal Cancer Alliance recommends getting a colonoscopy at age 50 and then every 10 years after that. It tends takes 10 to 15 years from the time the first abnormal cells develop into polyps. Regular screening means that you can arrange for a doctor to remove the polyps before they become cancerous.

If you’re age 50 or older and have never had a colonoscopy, we encourage you to schedule one through Western Maryland Health System primary care provider.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing relating symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.