Any change in your stool or bowel habits is a good reason to talk to your doctor about colon cancer.

Colon cancer, also called colorectal cancer, is the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in Iowa.

The colon and rectum form a long, muscular tube called the large intestine or large bowel. Colon cancer begins when cells start growing out of control. Most cancers begin as growths called polyps on the inner lining of the colon or rectum.

Colon cancer that has been found early, before it has a chance to spread outside of the colon, can be treated successfully.

Learn more about colon cancer and its symptoms and treatments.

Colon cancer can cause a wide range of symptoms.

Signs to watch for include:

  • Change in usual bowel habits (for example, changing from one bowel movement a day to two or three movements a day)
  • Blood in the stool, either dark red or bright red
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Stools that are more narrow than usual
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort such as:
    • Gas pains
    • Cramping
    • Bloating
    • Feeling of fullness
  • Loose or watery bowel movements or hard, difficult-to-pass stools that continue for more than two weeks
  • Feeling as if the bowel does not empty completely
  • Weight loss for no reason

These symptoms may be caused by problems other than cancer. Only a doctor can find out the cause. If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor.

You’re at risk for colon cancer if someone else in your family had it.

Certain things increase your risk of getting colon cancer. These are called risk factors. Risk factors for colon cancer include:

  • A family history of colon cancer
  • Being 50 or older
  • Previously having colon polyps (small noncancerous growths)
  • Having certain types of cancer in the past, such as:
    • Colon cancer
    • Rectum cancer
    • Ovarian cancer
    • Endometrium cancer
    • Breast cancer
  • Having inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • Hereditary conditions
  • Familial adenomatous polyposis
  • Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch Syndrome)
  • Eating a high-fat, low-fiber diet
  • Being African American or an Ashkenazi Jew
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol intake
  • An inactive lifestyle
Regular screenings and healthy life choices can prevent colon cancer.

You can take steps to help prevent colon cancer.

Eat a diet high in fiber, fruits, and vegetables.

It’s not known if a diet low in fat and high in fiber, fruits, and vegetables lowers the risk of colon and rectal cancers, but some studies have shown that a diet high in protein, fat, calories, and meat increases the risk of colon cancer.

Increase your activity level.

Research shows that an inactive lifestyle may lead to a higher risk of colon and rectal cancer. Get 30 minutes of exercise each day.

Cut back on alcohol.

More than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men has been shown to raise the risk of many cancers. Heavy alcohol use has been shown to increase the risk of colon cancer.

Get regular colon cancer screenings.

Screening exams can find and remove polyps before they turn into cancer. Screening may include colonoscopy or other options. Follow your doctor’s advice about which tests to have for colon cancer.

Surgery is the most common treatment for colon cancer.

Treatment for colon cancer depends on the stage of the cancer when it’s diagnosed. Three standard treatments are used: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

  • Surgery is the most common treatment for all stages of colon cancer.
  • Chemotherapy is medicine that can kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. Chemotherapy can be taken in a pill form, given in the vein through an IV, or given in the muscle with a needle. 
  • Chemoembolization is used for patients whose colon cancer has spread to the liver. Doctors block the artery that feeds the liver with blood and inject chemotherapy drugs into the artery between the blockage and the liver so the drugs will go directly to the liver. Only a small amount of the chemotherapy will reach other cells.
  • Radiation therapy uses X-rays or other types of energy to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. Usually, radiation is given outside the body using a machine. Internal radiation uses radioactive substances like needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are put directly in or near the cancer.
  • Immunotherapy treatment uses substances to encourage the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer. It’s also called biotherapy.

Your colon cancer care at Holden is provided by experts who only treat colon cancer patients.

We bring together experts from different areas of medicine to work together as a team called a multidisciplinary oncology group that is focused on colorectal cancer.

This team of fellowship-trained specialists—surgical oncologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, radiologists, pathologists, pharmacists, genetics counselors, nurses, and others—works together to design a treatment plan that is tailored to you and your specific treatment needs.

We also offer:

Clinical trials: A clinical trial is a study of the latest promising drugs and procedures not yet available on the market. Holden patients have access to a wealth of these new treatment options.

Clinical pharmacist expertise: Our clinical pharmacists specializing in chemotherapy will provide personalized counseling related to your treatment.

Coordinated care, personal attention: Your care team includes nurses who help coordinate all of your care. We also offer counseling services and support groups for you and your family.

Excellent outcomes: Several studies have shown that rectal cancer patients treated by specialized surgeons who perform large volumes of rectal cancer resections have better outcomes and survival rates compared to patients treated at lower volume centers.

Genetic counseling: Your genetic counselor analyzes your family history for risk and will advise you on genetic testing.

Palliative care service: Palliative care experts help you manage your cancer symptoms and minimize side effects from your treatment.

Targeted treatments: We offer advanced treatments and therapies tailored for you.

Meet our team.

Cancer Care Clinics

University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics

200 Hawkins Drive
Iowa City, Iowa 52242

Clinical Cancer Center

21602 Pomerantz Family Pavilion (PFP)
Elevator M, Level 1
Phone: 1-319-356-4200

Fort Madison

5445 Avenue O
Fort Madison, IA 52627

Fort Madison

Phone: 1-800-777-8442

Cancer Services-Quad Cities

1351 Kimberly Road
Suite 100
Bettendorf, Iowa 52722

University of Iowa Health Care Cancer Services-Quad Cities

Phone: 1-563-355-7733