Colon cancer is the most common cancer of the gastrointestinal tract. The cancer commonly involves the lower rectum and sigmoid portion of the colon, but can be found at any point of the colon.

Although not completely understood, environmental and hereditary factors are believed to lead to colon cancer. A high consumption of saturated fat (such as animal fat) and a low-fiber diet are leading theories of a dietary cause of colon cancer. The main risk factors for colorectal cancer are: age older than 50 years, inflammatory bowel disease (such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease), genital or breast cancer, and a family history of colon cancer or a disease called familial polyposis.

Colon cancer is usually detectable by means of a colonoscopy (a scope which is passed through the rectum to visualize the entire colon). Biopsies are easily performed on any suspicious areas, and any polyps can be removed. Polyps are growths from the surface of the colon that can transform into malignant cancer.

Colon cancer can be cured if detected early, before it has had a chance to spread. The best way to detect colon cancer early is by means of screening.

Symptoms of Your Diagnosis

Signs and symptoms to be aware of are: change in bowel habits, such as constipation; change in the caliber of stools (such as pencil-thin stools); black tarry stools; rectal bleeding; and abdominal pain.

Sometimes, you may not have any symptoms but may be found to have iron deficiency anemia. This usually necessitates evaluation to exclude colon cancer. Colon cancer, if undetected or untreated, usually spreads through the wall of the intestine into the surrounding areas and also into the liver. Sometimes it can spread to the lungs and bone.

Screening for Colon Cancer

The best treatment is prevention by means of screening. There are common screening options for colon cancer that have also shown to significantly reduce the risk of death. These screening options include testing stools for microscopic blood annually after 50 years of age. Several special cards are taken home, and a small amount of stool is placed on the cards, which are then returned to the doctor. If blood is detected in the samples, a colonoscopy is scheduled to evaluate the colon. A colonoscopy is a scope passed through the rectum, to visualize the entire colon.

Another screening option includes a Flexible Sigmoidoscopy, every three-to-five years, after the age of 50. A Flexible Sigmoidoscopy is similar to a colonoscopy, but looks at only the sigmoid section, rather than the entire colon.

The DOs

  • Understand the importance of colon screening for all persons older than 50 years and for all family members of patients with colon cancer.
  • Make sure your diet is high in fiber and low in animal fat.

The DON'Ts

  • Don't forget the importance of screening.

When to Call Your Doctor

  • If you have change in bowel habits, bloody or black stools, diarrhea, or constipation.
  • If you have new abdominal pain or back pain with lower leg weakness.
  • If you note skin color change such as jaundice.

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Derived from Patient Teaching Guide, Copyright 2006 Mosby, Inc. All Rights Reserved