Colorectal cancer
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Our colon is an essential part of our digestive process. Its main functions include absorbing the necessary water and minerals that our body needs, and eliminating our body’s solid wastes. In a normal person with a healthy colon, digestion will take an average time of 12 to 24 hours, with bowel movement occurring two to three times a day.

When your bowel movement habits undergo an unexplained change, when you start seeing blood in your stool, or experience frequent stomach pain, consult your doctor immediately and request screening for colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer, or bowel cancer, is considered the third most widespread form of cancer in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, it takes second place in the number of cancer-related deaths each year. In 2007 alone, more than 100,000 cases of colon cancer and over 40,000 cases of rectal cancer were diagnosed.


Symptoms of this disease often do not show themselves until the cancer has reached a more advanced stage. By then, cancerous growths will have sprouted around the area of the colon, the rectum, and even the appendix. Symptoms will usually depend on where the cancer lesions have formed.

In general, a person with colorectal cancer will experience a change in bowel movement: like constipation or diarrhea; a change in the color and consistency of stools; bloody bowel movements, rectal bleeding, or stools with mucus; a constant feeling of wanting to defecate, but getting no relief after doing so. Although hemorrhoids and inflammatory bowel disease can cause these symptoms, a doctor will be able to determine if you have colorectal cancer or not.

When the cancer has spread, the patient will have shortness of breath, pain in the upper right abdomen, and even liver enlargement.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are some people who develop colon cancer without exhibiting any symptoms at all! The best way to detect whether you have colorectal cancer will be to undergo screening, particularly if you have some or all the signs of being at risk for contracting the disease.


Risk factors describe your chances of getting a disease. Several things can put you at risk for colorectal cancer, and one is age. Colon cancer commonly strikes people over the age of 50. People whose diets are high in fat and red meat, those who are obese, and those who have had previous bouts of the disease or a family history of colorectal cancer are also susceptible. Sometimes, benign polyps, or growths inside the colon, can become malignant and lead to development of the colon cancer.

Smokers, diabetics, people who are physically inactive, and those who constantly suffer from ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, where the colon is constantly inflamed for an extended period of time, are at risk. People who are exposed to some strains of the human papilloma virus associated with colorectal cancer have high risk factors, as well.
Colorectal Cancer
Image: Colorectal Cancer

It takes a long time, 10 to 15 years in fact, for colorectal cancer to develop. Proper screening can help catch the disease at an early stage. After taking your medical history and giving a thorough physical exam, your doctor may recommend different kinds of screening tests that are available. An initial digital rectal exam, where the doctor inserts a gloved and lubricated finger into the rectum can detect the presence of any large tumors. A fecal occult blood test will verify the presence of blood in the stool.


Sigmoidoscopy is an endoscopy procedure involving a lighted probe inserted into the rectum to search for polyps and other abnormal growths. If tissue needs to be removed for biopsy, a colonoscopy is used. This is another type of endoscopy where a rectum-inserted lighted probe looks for abnormalities like polyps and other irregular tissue formation. When found, a small piece of these tissues can immediately be removed for examination in a pathology laboratory.

You can also undergo an ultrasound, where a small instrument will be moved around on the skin above your abdomen. This instrument, a microphone-like transducer, emits high frequency sound waves, and its echoes transmit a picture of your internal organs and any abnormal mass that may be present.

Other tests involve a CT (Computed Tomography) scan, which shows detailed images of cross-sections of your body; or an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), where radio waves and strong magnets are used. A chest x-ray can check whether the cancer has reached your lungs, while a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) will involve having a small quantity of radioactive sugar, or glucose, injected into your arm to determine where the cancer has spread. Cancer cells soak up great amounts of radioactive sugar, and a special camera in the PET machine will detect the presence of radioactivity in the different parts of your body.


Depending on each person’s case or stage of the disease, several treatments are available to treat colorectal cancer. One of the most widely-used procedures to rid the body of infected mass is surgery. The growth itself and some of the normal tissue surrounding the growth are cut away, and your colon is then sewn back together. Sometimes, a colostomy will be needed after the surgery, where a tube connected to your colon allows the wastes to pass out of your body.

If rectal cancer is involved, your surgeon may recommend several surgical procedures like polypectomy (cutting the cancer at the base of mushroom-like growths at the rectum), local excision (removing exterior growths and some small surrounding healthy tissue from the rectum’s inner layer), local full thickness resection (cutting through the rectum’s layers to get rid of persistent growths and surrounding normal tissue), and electrofulgeration (burning cancerous tissue with electrical current). All of these rectal cancer procedures can be performed without cutting the abdomen open.

Radiation therapy for both colon and rectal cancer relies on the use of high-energy radiation to eliminate cancer cells. Usually radiation treatment is used before surgery to shrink the cancerous mass, and afterwards to get rid of the remaining cancer nodes that may not have been seen or removed during the surgical procedure. Sometimes radiation is used to lesson the symptoms of more advanced cancer, like pain, bleeding, and intestinal blockage. Some skin irritation, nausea, diarrhea and fatigue are some of the side-effects of radiation therapy, but these subside after a period of time.

Another treatment option is chemotherapy, where anti-cancer drugs are administered through an IV line, or in pill form. The medication passes through your bloodstream to be distributed to all parts of your body. According to some studies, chemotherapy can improve the survival rate of patients suffering from colorectal cancer. It can also help ease some of the symptoms of the advanced stages of the disease. Chemotherapy causes some side-effects, as well, depending on the type of medication used and the length of time it is administered. These side-effects, like hair loss, ceases as soon as the chemotherapy treatment ends.


You have a 90% chance of surviving for 5 years or more if the disease is treated at an early stage. Once the cancer reaches neighboring organs or lymph nodes, the survival rate decreases, and if the cancer has spread further to organs like the liver and the lungs, the 5-year survival rate goes down to less than 10%.

Like all cancers, prevention is 99% of the cure. If your risk factor involves heredity, the best way to treat the disease as early as possible is to undergo regular colorectal cancer screening to test for polyps and other abnormal growths so they can be removed before they have a chance to become malignant. Screening is the best way to diagnose colon and rectal cancers while they are still easy to treat. A healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods can help, and so can mild to moderate exercise for at least an hour, 5 days a week.

Chemoprevention is currently one of the areas of research on colorectal cancer. Studies on the use of natural or man-made chemicals are being made to assess their ability to lower the risk of developing the disease. It has been found that taking daily multivitamins with calcium, magnesium and folic acid lowers your risk for colorectal cancer. So can vitamin D and calcium.

Other research has discovered that people who take aspirin and other NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen and naproxen lower their colorectal cancer risk by as much as 50%. One warning, though, regular NSAIDS intake has been found to cause serious bleeding stemming from gastric irritation. Consult your doctor before taking any form of medication.

Scientists are also making advances in genetics to understand how genes work in hereditary colorectal cancer. These studies will eventually lead to the development of breakthrough drugs and gene therapies to correct problems at the root. In fact, several of these gene therapies are undergoing trials at the moment.

Technologies on imaging and laboratory tests are also being tried and tested, like virtual colonoscopy, which can detect early stage cancers accurately, and immunotherapy, which strengthens a patient’s immune system against colorectal cancer.

It is fortunate to note that the number of deaths from colorectal cancer has gone down in the last 15 years. Treatment for colorectal cancer has also become more advanced in the last decade, providing people with more options to choose from. Because of these developments, there exist about 1 million colorectal cancer survivors in the United States today.
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Medication commonly used for these disease:

drugs Colorectal cancer drugs