Colorectal Cancer

What is Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal cancer starts in the colon or rectum. Colon and rectal cancers begin in the digestive system, also called the gastrointestinal (GI) system.

In most cases, colon and rectal cancers develop slowly over a period of several years. Colon and rectal cancer have many features in common and are often referred to as “colorectal cancer.” Most colorectal cancers begin as polyps. Colorectal polyps are tiny, grape-like growths inside the colon or rectum that may become cancerous.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women, and the second most common cause of U.S. cancer deaths when men and women are combined. Each year, an estimated 6,600 Illinoisans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and more than 2,400 people will die from it. Screening tests, including colonoscopies, are one of the best ways to prevent colorectal cancer. Screening can often find colorectal cancer early, when it is most likely to be cured.

Facts: According to the Illinois State Cancer Registry, about 7,460 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed in Illinois in 2008. About 2,670 Illinoisans are expected to die of colorectal cancer in 2008.

What are the Causes and Risk Factors of Colorectal Cancer?

The exact causes of colorectal cancer are not known. Common risk factors include:

  • Family history of colorectal cancer: If you have close relatives (parent, brother or sister, or child) who have had this cancer, your risk is increased.
  • Ethnic background: Jews of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) have a higher rate of colon cancer.
  • Previous colorectal cancer: Even if a colorectal cancer has been completely removed, new cancers may start in other areas of your colon and rectum.
  • Polyps: Polyps are common in people older than age 50 and some become cancerous. Familial polyposis, an inherited condition, can cause hundreds of polyps to form in the colon and rectum. Unless this condition is treated, it almost always leads to cancer. Screening tests can find polyps and they can be removed before they become cancerous.
  • History of bowel disease: The disease ulcerative colitis (Crohn’s disease) increases the risk of colon cancer. In this disease, the colon is inflamed over a long period of time and may have ulcers.
  • Age: Colorectal cancer is more common in people older than age 50 and the risk increases with age.
  • Diet: A diet high in fat, especially fat from animal sources, can increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Lack of exercise: People who are not physically active have a higher risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Smoking: According to the American Cancer Society, smokers are 30 percent to 40 percent more likely than nonsmokers to die of colorectal cancer.
  • Alcohol: Excessive use of alcohol has been linked to colorectal cancer.

What are the Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer?

There are often no symptoms of colorectal cancer in its early stage. When symptoms are present, they include one or more of the following:

  • a change in bowel habits
  • diarrhea, constipation or a feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
  • blood (either bright red or very dark) in the stool
  • stools that are narrower than usual
  • general abdominal discomfort, bloating and fullness, frequent gas pains, cramps
  • unexplained weight loss
  • constant or unusual tiredness
  • vomiting

These symptoms may be caused by advanced colorectal cancer or some other condition. It is important to report any of these symptoms to your health care provider.

How to Prevent Colorectal Cancer

  • Get regular screening tests beginning at age 50. If you have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps or a personal history of another cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, talk to your doctor about being screened before age 50.
  • Eat at least five servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables and whole grain foods and limit high-fat foods and red meat.
  • Physical activity is also important to reduce the risk. The American Cancer Society recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity on five or more days of the week.
  • Don't smoke. Call the Illinois Tobacco Quitline for help quiting (888-QUIT-YES).

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends these tests to screen for colorectal cancer:

  • Colonoscopy (every 10 years)
  • High sensitive fecal occult blood test (FOBT), stool test or fecal immunochemical test (FIT) (every year).
  • Sigmoidoscopy (every five years with FOBT every three years)