Colon cancer is characterized by the development of malignant cancer cells in the large intestine, which is the lower portion of your digestive system. The digestive system is what allows our bodies to consume and process food. It helps our bodies to digest and process nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, protein and water from the foods that we consume and helps our bodies to then discard the remaining waste material. The digestive system is comprised of several different aspects, including the esophagus, the stomach, and small and large intestines. The colon is the first six feet of the large intestine, an area that is also considered the large bowel. The six inches that connect the colon to the anus, or the opening to the outside of the body, are called the anal canal and rectum. These areas are often referred to together as the colorectal region, especially in regards to the treatment of conditions that affect both areas as do certain cancers.
The walls lining the colorectal region are comprised of many layers of tissue. Colorectal cancers may affect merely the top layers of tissue or may become deeply embedded and grow into all of the layers. The stage or degree of your colon cancer depends largely on the extent that the cancer has spread into the tissue.
Often, colon cancer develops from the presence of small noncancerous abnormalities called polyps. While not all polyps develop into cancers, overtime many do and so it is important to treat and remove polyps as they appear. While polyps are a health concern they frequently do not produce any symptoms. Therefore, the only successful method in treating the new appearance of polyps before they develop into cancer is by participating in regular screenings of your colorectal region through a colonoscopy exam.
There are certain similarities and difference between cancers in the colon and rectum. Overall, colorectal cancers develop slowly over years. Most often, colon cancer develops from polyps classified as an adenoma, and if removed early can prevent cancer from developing. Other risk factors for developing colon cancer include genetic disposition or a family history of the disease. Two common types of hereditary gene mutations include:
- Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP): This is a rare condition that causes thousands of polyps to develop in the lining of your colon.
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC): This condition is also frequently known as Lynch syndrome and puts you at an enhanced risk for developing colon cancer, as well as other cancers.
If left untreated, both FAP and HNPCC put you at an increased risk for developing colon cancer before the age of 50. Genetic testing can help you determine if you are at risk for colorectal cancer before the disease begins to develop and is especially recommended if you have a family history of either of these conditions.
Symptoms of colon cancer vary depending on the severity and stage of the condition. Common signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer include:
- Change in bowel habits, such as an increase in constipation or diarrhea
- Rectal bleeding
- Blood in stool
- Abdominal discomfort
- Increase in abdominal cramps or gas
- Overall weakness
- Unexplained weight loss
- The feeling of fullness in the lower abdomen, or that the bowels do not empty completely after a bowel movement
While these are the most frequent symptoms, many people do not experience any of these signs until the cancer has begun to advance. The best way to diagnose and treat cancer early on is with preventative colonoscopy exams. For most individuals, screenings are recommended after the age of 50.