In recognition of March’s Colon Cancer Awareness Month, Lexington Clinic Gastroenterology is providing answers to some common questions about colon cancer.
What is colon cancer?
Colon cancer is the erratic and uncontrolled growth of cells lining the colon and rectum. The colon is the lower part of the intestinal tract, sometimes called the large intestine, it is connected to the small intestine in the lower right side of the abdomen. The colon is divided into four parts:
• The ascending colon, which is where the small and large intestines connect. The ascending colon rises from the lower right part of the abdomen to the upper right quadrant.
• The transverse colon, which travels across the top of the abdomen to the upper left quadrant.
• The descending colon, which extends downward from the upper left to the lower left quadrant.
• The sigmoid colon, a curvy section that connects to the rectum, where the remains of digestion are excreted.
The outside of the intestinal tract is lined by strong muscles that push the chyme (partially digested food) through the intestines. Inside, the intestinal tract is lined with mucosa (membranes that absorb nutrients, water and salt) and populated by billions of bacteria. These bacteria are responsible for further breaking down the chyme; neutralizing harmful byproducts of digestion; and producing some vitamins, such as vitamin K.
What causes colon cancer?
Most colon cancers get started as polyps. Polyps are small tissue growths that look like mushrooms or little fingers. Colon polyps are common, and most are harmless, but there is no way to know which polyps are “safe” and which might become cancerous. So, it’s best to reduce your risk of developing polyps, to screen for them and to remove any that are found.
Some families are more prone to developing polyps than others, a result of genetics. Polyps may also arise as a result of genetic mutation or exposure to certain chemicals and substances. Smoking is a risk factor for colon cancer.
Being overweight and physically inactive can also increase your risk of developing colon cancer.
Polyps can also be attributed to certain dietary habits. Eating a diet that consists of a lot of red meat, processed meats and fat can increase the risk of developing polyps and, potentially, colon cancer. However, eating a diet that is rich in whole grains, fiber, fruits and vegetables has been linked to a reduced risk.
How many people get colon cancer?
Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third-most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be more than 101,000 new cases of colon cancer diagnosed this year and around 44,000 new cases of rectal cancer. The overall lifetime risk for developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 22 for men and 1 in 24 for women.
In 2013, Kentucky ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for colon cancer incidence and No. 4 for colon cancer mortality, according to the Kentucky Colon Cancer Prevention Project.
Although the risk of colorectal cancer increases with age, more cases are occurring among younger people now than in the past. About one in 10 people diagnosed with colon cancer today are under the age of 50, and that number is increasing.
What are symptoms of colorectal cancer?
• Unexplained weight loss
• A change in bowel habits, including constipation/diarrhea. A change in the consistency of your stool that last longer than four weeks.
• Abdominal pain or discomfort, such as cramps, gas or pain.
• A feeling you need to have a bowel movement that’s not relieved by doing so.
• Bloody or dark stools
Is there a screening for colon cancer?
Yes. Colonoscopies are used to screen for colon cancer and are considered highly effective and, in many cases, can prevent colon cancer from occurring. During the screening, the gastroenterologist uses a small camera to inspect the lining of the colon. The procedure typically takes less than an hour and, if any polyps are found, they can be removed during the screening.
During the screening, patients receive a combination of medications to help them relax and block discomfort. Patients are typically able to return home within a few hours and go back to work the next day.
Another screening, called the FIT test, can be given to patients who decline colonoscopy. This test involves careful collection of a stool sample and analysis in a medical laboratory. FIT testing is an acceptable alternative for patients who refuse colonoscopy, but it is available only to a narrow set of people. If a problem is detected, the patient will still need a colonoscopy.
Should I have the screening?
If you have a family history of colon cancer or polyps, your risk of developing colon cancer is increased. If you have a personal history of inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s or Colitis, you should undergo screening earlier and more often. Talk to your doctor about your risk factors. If you have none, be sure to talk with your doctor about colon cancer screening by the time you reach 35.
Need more information?
Lexington Clinic Gastroenterology treats all types of digestive diseases and disorders and provides screenings including colonoscopies. For more information, please call (859) 258-4362.