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Colorectal Cancer: An Overview

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Colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon and/or rectum) is estimated to occur in over 140,000 people in the United States every year and results in over 49,000 deaths.

Risk Factors

Factors that increase the likelihood of getting colorectal cancer include:

• Smoking
• A diet high in animal fat and low in fruit and vegetables
• Inflammation of the colon, such as ulcerative colitis
• A previous history of colorectal cancer
• A family history of colorectal cancer

• Genetic disorder – some types of colon cancer are hereditary, such as hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer which is caused by changes in a gene and accounts for 2 percent of colorectal cancer cases
• Advanced age – the average age at diagnosis is 72 years and 90 percent of cases occur after the age of 50.

Reducing the Risk of Cancer

For those with a risk of a familial form of colorectal cancer, there is a genetic test that looks for changes within the gene that signify cancer. If there is no genetically inherited cancer and it isn’t part of your family history, then adopting healthy living habits, such as quitting smoking and eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables will reduce your risk.

If you’ve already got cancer, exercising can increase your chance of survival and may prevent the cancer from recurring, according to the Journal of Clinical Oncology.


Symptoms of colorectal cancer are:
• Blood in the stool
• Diarrhea
• Constipation
• Abdominal pain and cramping
• Unexplained weight loss
• Exhaustion
• Nausea and vomiting


Diagnosis begins with the doctor taking a full medical history and asking about your symptoms. He will do an examination of the rectum by inserting a gloved finger to feel for any abnormality.

A stool sample will be taken to be checked for blood and if any is found, other tests will be carried out to determine the cause of the blood. There are other causes that are non-cancerous.

The doctor may order a colonoscopy (an examination of the rectum and colon using a long tube with a light on it).

You might be given a barium enema, where contrast dye and air are put into the rectum. This allows X-ray pictures to be taken of your colon and rectum. Doctors will be able to see if there are any tumors.


Treatment for colorectal cancer consists of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and/or surgery. Small cancerous polyps can be removed from your colon with a colonoscope. If they are in the lower rectum they can be removed without the use of the scope.

In early stage cancer, the tumors can be removed with laparoscopic surgery, that is making tiny cuts in your abdomen so the surgeon can see inside with a laparoscope and remove the tumors and part of the colon.

Open surgery is done for more advanced cancer. The surgeon makes a large cut to your abdomen to remove the tumors and part of the colon or rectum. For partial removal of these organs, the surgeon can reconnect the ends. Sometimes, however, a colostomy bag will be needed.


What You Need To Know About™ Cancer of the Colon and Rectum, National Cancer Institute. Web. 18 October 2011. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/colon-and-rectal

Impact of physical activity on cancer recurrence and survival in patients with stage III colon cancer: findings from CALGB 89803. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2006 Aug 1;24(22):3535-41. Epub 2006 Jul 5. Abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16822843?dopt=AbstractPlus

Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/. She is author of the book, 'Breast Milk: A Natural Immunisation,' and co-author of an educational resource on disabled parenting.

Reviewed October 18, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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