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Causes, symptoms, and prevention

Colon Cancer. What is it?

“Each year an estimated 150,000 people in the US will be diagnosed with colon cancer and an estimated 49,000 people will die from the disease and that is why awareness is important.1, 2

- Candace, colon cancer survivor and colorectal cancer awareness advocate

Did you know that colon cancer, also referred to as colorectal cancer, is the second-leading cancer killer of men and women in the US?3 The cancer occurs in the colon (or large intestine) or in the rectum, and it often develops slowly. Before the cancer develops, an abnormal growth called a polyp develops on the inner lining of the large intestine or rectum. Perhaps you have family members who have had polyps found. While polyps begin as a noncancerous growth, some can turn into cancer over time.

Another kind of precancerous condition is called dysplasia [dis-plā-zh(ē-)ə]. Dysplasia is an area in the lining of the colon or rectum where the cells look abnormal (but not like true cancer cells) when viewed under a microscope. These cells can turn into cancer over time.

What causes colon cancer?

While there is no specific cause of colon cancer, certain factors can increase your risk of developing the disease.

These can include:

  • Age 50 or older
  • Family history
  • Genetic alterations
  • A diet rich in fat and red meat
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Obesity, diabetes, and lack of exercise

Everyone is different, and not all people who have a risk of colon cancer will develop the disease. Even if you have no family history of colon cancer, keep in mind individuals who are younger than 50 but whose lifestyle includes the risk factors listed above should consider getting screened. If you may be at risk for colon cancer, it’s important to talk to your doctor about regular screenings.

What are the symptoms of colon cancer?

“As soon as I turned 50, my physician wrote me a prescription for a colonoscopy. I folded it up and kept it in my wallet for three years. The years following that initial appointment, I had virtually no symptoms. I had very little bleeding in my stool, but nothing major enough to scare me to finally follow through with the appointment.4

- Karen, colon cancer survivor

It’s important to keep an eye on any changes in your health. Colon cancer often has no obvious signs or symptoms in the early stages. By the time symptoms show themselves, the cancer has advanced to a later stage.

If you start to experience any of the following symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor right away to find out if the symptoms are being caused by colon cancer5:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation that lasts for more than a few days
  • A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by having one
  • Blood in your stool
  • Cramping or stomach pain
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss

Learn more about colon cancer symptoms.

What can be done to prevent colon cancer?

“Colon cancer is one of the most common cancers among men and women, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s the clincher. It’s highly preventable. By knowing about this disease and its symptoms, talking with your family about your family history, and talking with your physician about the right time for you to be screened, it’s possible to take charge of your health and prevent this disease. If my dad had had that education and discussion with his physician, his story would be very different.6

- Andrea, executive director of the Colon Cancer Prevent Project

If you are 50 years old or older, it’s important for you to get screened. Why? Screening offers the opportunity to find colon cancer or polyps and to stop disease progression. Even with the high rates of colon cancer, if it’s found early enough, it is highly treatable.7  Don’t wait for the symptoms before talking to your doctor about getting screened.


LEARN MORE ABOUT SCREENING METHODS
References
  1. Exact Sciences. Blog: November’s Hero of the Month. 11/13.
  2. American Cancer Society. Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2011-2013.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vital Signs: Colorectal Cancer Screening Test Use. 11/13.
  4. Exact Sciences. Blog: June’s Hero of the Month. 06/13.
  5. ACS Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2011-2013.
  6. Exact Sciences. Blog. 09/13.
  7. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2009;101:1412-1422; American Cancer Society.