Doctor holding up a model of an intestinal tract

March 14, 2015

Colorectal Cancer: Know the Signs, Symptoms & How to Nip It in the Bud

Be Healthy

Colorectal cancer is a cancer of the colon or rectum, and is the fourth most common form of cancer in the United States.

Incidence and mortality rates of colorectal cancer have been declining over the past two decades; however, colon and rectum cancers remain the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.

Last year, it was estimated there would be more than 136,000 new cases of colon and rectum cancers combined, with more than 50,000 deaths from both diseases.

Colorectal cancer usually begins as a polyp, a small growth that starts in the inner lining of the large intestine, also known as the colon. Tumors also may form from the inner lining of the very last part of the digestive tract, called the rectum.

Most people with early colon cancer don't have symptoms. Instead, these "silent" tumors grow slowly and often won’t produce symptoms until they reach a large size.

As the cancer grows, the patient may develop:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrow stool that lasts for more than a few days.
  • An urge to have a bowel movement that doesn't go away after doing so.
  • Rectal bleeding, dark stools or blood in the stool (often, though, the stool will look normal).
  • Cramping or stomach pain.
  • Weakness and tiredness.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Anemia.

Risk factors for colorectal cancer increase with age. In fact, more than 90 percent of colorectal cancer cases occur in patients age 50 and older.

Other risk factors include:

  • A family history of colorectal cancer or polyps.
  • Excessive alcohol use.
  • Obesity.
  • Being physically inactive.
  • Smoking.
  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • A history of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis).
  • Certain genetic mutations.

Fortunately, colorectal cancer is preventable, and curable, if detected early.

“Colon cancer is largely preventable with proper screening,” says Dr. Stephen D. Coleman, a gastroenterologist at Kauai Medical Clinic.

“The average person should have a colonoscopy beginning at age 50,” Coleman advises. “People with increased risk, such as a family history of colon cancer or a personal history of colon polyps, should be screened more often.”

Colorectal screenings include:

  • Colonoscopy – Every 10 years if the study is normal.
  • Fecal occult blood test or stool test (FOBT) – Yearly.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy – Every five years; every three years with FOBT.

Discuss with your primary care physician your risk factors for colorectal cancer and prevention options.