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What is colorectal cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths. Therefore, it’s important to understand your personal risk factors for this condition and recognize symptoms early.

Colon cancer and rectal cancer are so similar that they are often both referred to as colorectal cancer. The different terms describe the location in the intestines where the tumor originates: the colon or the rectum. 

Colorectal cancer symptoms

It’s important to pay attention to your body to detect any changes that may indicate a health concern. Some common symptoms of this condition include:

  • Diarrhea, constipation, or a change in bowel habits for more than a few days
  • Unusual stool (thin or slimy)
  • Feeling like your bowel won’t completely empty
  • Blood in stool
  • Fatigue
  • Persistent belly pain
  • Unexplained weight loss

Since you may not notice symptoms until the cancer has spread, it’s important to understand your personal risk for colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer risk factors

Anyone over the age of 45 is at average risk for colorectal cancer. Men have a slightly higher risk than women, but regular screenings are important for everyone. Some factors that could increase your risk include:

  • History of colon polyps
  • Previous diagnosis of colon cancer
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Lynch syndrome
  • African American heritage
  • Eastern European Jewish heritage
  • Immediate family member with polyps or colorectal cancer
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Diet high in red meat or lunch meat

Colorectal cancer screenings and diagnosis

Experts recommend people at average risk for this condition begin routine screenings at age 45. People with a higher risk may need to start screening earlier and have them done more frequently. Some tests for colorectal cancer include:

  • Colonoscopy – examines the interior walls of the rectum and colon
  • Double-contrast barium enema – highlights the inner part of the colon and rectum in an X-ray
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy - examines the interior walls of the rectum and part of the colon
  • Computed tomography (CT) colonography or virtual colonoscopy – shows a 3D view of the colon and rectum  
  • Fecal blood tests

If your doctor discovers abnormal results during the screening, they may perform the following to reach a diagnosis:

Colorectal cancer treatment and surgery

The physicians at St. Luke’s Health—including gastroenterologistssurgeons, and radiation oncologists—provide advanced, multidisciplinary care to our patients. For those dealing with this condition, we use a compassionate, collaborative approach to create a personalized treatment plan.

Some of the treatments and surgeries available for those with colorectal cancer include:

  • Polypectomy - removes the polyp from the colon wall by passing a wire loop through a colonoscope
  • Colectomy - removes the diseased area of the colon, then reconnects part of the colon
  • Minimally invasive procedures, including:
    • Endoscopic mucosal resection
    • Endoluminal stent placement
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy

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