Get a head start on colon cancer by understanding the risks and knowing how to get screened.
Colon cancer that has been diagnosed early is easier to treat.
Colon cancer, also called colorectal cancer, is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. for men and for women. So it’s important to be aware of your risk for colon cancer, the signs and symptoms of colon cancer, and what you can do to prevent colon cancer.
It’s also important to get screened for colon cancer. A screen is a test that checks you for signs of a disease while you’re healthy. It’s a way of finding a disease as early as possible, before you’ve noticed any symptoms.
If you’re at risk for colon cancer, you should talk to your doctor about getting screened.
Learn more about colon cancer and colon cancer screening options.
- What are colon cancer risk factors? Is the risk of colon cancer higher for women or men?
Certain things can increase your risk of getting colon cancer. These are called risk factors. Some risk factors are things you can’t change, like your age. Some risk factors are things that you can change, like the foods you eat.
Risk factors for colon cancer include:
Age: Your risk of getting colon cancer starts to get higher when you turn 50.
Family health history: If your family has a history of colon cancer or a history of inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, that increases your risk of getting colon cancer.
Being male: The risk of colon cancer for men is higher than it is for women. In 2020, about 78,000 men and 70,000 women were expected to be diagnosed with colon cancer.
Physical activity: Physical activity decreases your risk of colon cancer. Aerobic activities like walking, running, swimming, or cycling can help you reduce your risk.
Diet: You can decrease your risk by including more milk products, fruits, and vegetables in your diet and by cutting down on the amount of amount of alcohol, red meat, and processed food you include in your diet.
- What is a polyp? Should I be worried if I have polyps?
A polyp is a small growth in the colon or the rectum. You can’t feel polyps. They don’t cause symptoms that you can notice. The only way to check for them is to get screened for colon cancer.
If your colon cancer screening finds polyps, that doesn’t mean you have cancer. Two-thirds of polyps are not cancerous. But if you have polyps, they should be removed and examined in a lab to find out if they are cancerous or if they could lead to cancer.
- What are the signs and symptoms of colon cancer?
Colon cancer has two types of symptoms, based on where the cancer is in the body—the right side or the left side.
The colon is like a tube sock. Its goes from the right side of your abdomen to the left side, then to the rectum, and then the stool comes out at the end. Cancers on the right side may have different symptoms from cancers on the left side.
Patients with colon cancer on the right side often have anemia. That means they feel tired or weak but they don’t know why. The blood they’re losing is going into their colon, where the cancer is. This usually happens slowly, so the patients may not actually see any blood in their stool if the cancer is on the right side.
The part of your colon on the left side of your abdomen is closer to the end of the colon. So people with colon cancer on the left side often see blood in their stool.
Patients with colon cancer on the left side also have other symptoms that are generally more noticeable. They may have constipation or diarrhea that doesn’t have any obvious cause and lasts for a long time, like a couple of months.
Left-sided colon cancer can also cause changes in the width of the stool. Some patients may notice that their stool comes out more narrow, almost like toothpaste.
If you notice any of these symptoms, or any new bloating, pain, or other changes in your bowel habits that don’t seem to be related to your diet, you should tell your doctor about them.
- Most people know about colonoscopy. Are there other options for colon cancer screening?
Colonoscopy is the most common colon cancer screen. It’s a way to check for signs of colon cancer and to check for, and remove, polyps so that they can be tested for signs of cancer.
For most people, a colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years. You should talk to your doctor about when, and how often, you should have a colonoscopy. If you have polyps, your doctor may recommend more frequent colonoscopies.
Another option for colon cancer screening is a fecal immunochemical test, also called a FIT test. A FIT test is a way to check your stool for cancer DNA. A FIT test cannot find polyps.
You take a FIT test at home and mail your stool sample to a lab, where your sample is checked for signs of cancer.
If you choose to get screened using a FIT test, you should repeat the test once a year.
- What is the right age to start getting colon cancer screenings?
Recommendations vary from patient to patient. Talk to your doctor about when you should be screened.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends a screening colonoscopy at age 50.
Some recent data shows a rise in the number of younger patients with colon cancer. Because of this, the American Cancer Society has lowered its recommended age to begin colon cancer screening to 45.
This is why it’s important for everyone—even people in their twenties, thirties, and forties—to know the signs and symptoms of colon cancer.
- How is colon cancer treated?
Colon cancer treatment depends on how much the cancer has grown. Doctors use a system called staging to describe this.
Colon cancer has four stages. Stage 1 is the earliest, least-severe stage. Stage 4 is the most severe, most advanced stage.
About 80% of colon cancers are diagnosed at stage 1, 2, or 3. Patients at all of those stages are treated with surgery to remove the cancer. Stage 2 and 3 cancers and some stage 4 cancers are also treated with chemotherapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that weren’t removed in the surgery.
Patients with stage 4 cancer aren’t always treated with surgery. Sometimes the cancer has grown so much that chemotherapy is more effective than surgery for the quality of life for the patient.
- Where should I go to get colon cancer treatment?
Regardless of where you choose to go for your colon cancer diagnosis and treatment, you should consult with a comprehensive cancer center like Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center to make sure you’re getting the most accurate screening and diagnosis and the latest treatments available.
A one-time consultation at Holden soon after diagnosis gives patients an opportunity to consult with a team of experts who specialize in colon cancer, not just cancer in general. This team is multidisciplinary, which means it includes experts in surgical oncology, medical oncology, radiation oncology, radiology, pathology, pharmacy, genetics, and nursing.
A consultation at Holden also gives patients a chance to find out about the latest treatments available. Holden is one of a select group of U.S. cancer centers chosen by the National Cancer Institute to be a comprehensive cancer center. That designation is given to the nation’s top cancer research centers. Holden offers hundreds of clinical trials of promising new treatments, some of which are only available to Holden patients.
Patients can even continue to get most of their care from their regular doctor while benefiting from the advanced expertise that Holden’s colon cancer team offers.