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Colon Cancer

Internet References

About Colon Cancer

The second leading cause of cancer deaths, colon cancer strikes both men and women. It can be a life-threatening condition, but early detection results in high cure rates. More importantly, colon cancer can be prevented through a procedure known as colonoscopy.

The colon and rectum are parts of the digestive system, which is also called the gastrointestinal, or GI, system.

The GI system: After food is chewed and swallowed, it travels through the esophagus to the stomach. There it is partly broken down and then sent to the small intestine, also known as the small bowel. The word "small" refers to the diameter of the small intestine, which is narrower than that of the large bowel. Actually the small intestine is the longest segment of the digestive system -- about 20 feet. The small intestine continues breaking down the food and absorbs most of the nutrients. The small bowel joins the colon in the right lower abdomen. The colon (also called the large bowel or large intestine) is a muscular tube about 5 feet long. The large intestine consists of the colon and the rectum. The colon is the first 4 to 5 feet of the large intestine, and the rectum is the last 4 to 5 inches of the large intestine. The part of the colon that joins to the rectum is the sigmoid colon. The colon continues to absorb water and mineral nutrients from the food matter and serves as a storage place for waste matter. The waste matter left after this process is feces and goes into the rectum, and from there it passes out of the body through the anus.(2)

Colorectal cancer is a disease in which cells in the colon or rectum become abnormal and grow without normal control or order, forming a mass called a tumor.  These tumors most often start as polyps.  Screening colonoscopy can detect these polyps before they become malignant.  By removing them, colon cancer can be prevented.  However, if allowed to grow, the cells within the polyps can eventually become malignant and spread to other parts of the body.  (Illustration courtesy of Read more about colonoscopy.

Causes of colon cancer from MerckSource (4)

There is no single cause for colon cancer. However, almost all colon cancers begin as benign polyps which, over a period of many years, develop into cancers.

Predisposing Factors that increase the risk of colon cancer are

  • colorectal polyps
  • cancer elsewhere in the body
  • advancing age--Research indicates that the risk for colorectal cancer increase substantially after age 50 (5)
  • a family history of colon cancer
  • ulcerative colitis
  • Patients with a history of breast cancer have a slightly increased risk of developing colon cancer
  • Certain genetic syndromes increase the risk of developing colon cancer in affected families

Environmental Factors : Some, but not all, research indicates that a high-fat diet, as well as a diet low in fiber and folic acid, may play a role in the development of colorectal cancer. Three recently published clinical studies, however, have failed to produce evidence to support the theory that a diet low in fiber leads to colorectal cancer. There is considerable evidence, however, that the following do increase the risk of colorectal cancer:

  • High intake of red meat
  • Obesity appears to influence the development of polyps and their progression to malignancy. The reason for the relationship between obesity and colon cancer remains unknown; however, some researchers have theorized that elevated insulin may be a factor.
  • Smoking: The use of alcohol and tobacco in combination has been linked to the risk of developing colorectal cancer. Researchers have found that colorectal cancer death rates were highest among current smokers, intermediate among former smokers and lowest among never smokers. The risk of dying from colorectal cancer was higher among those who smoked for 20 or more years. The duration and amount of smoking was a significant factor, as the data showed that the risk of colorectal cancer increased with the number of cigarettes smoked daily and the number of years of smoking. A younger age at initiation also increased the risk. On the other hand, the colorectal cancer risk decreased with each year after quitting smoking. The data also showed that cigar and pipe smokers had an increased risk of colorectal cancer as well.
  • Moderate to high alcohol consumption also increases the risk of certain cancers.(5)
Prevention from the Colorectal Cancer Network(5)

The best "treatment" of cancer is preventing its occurrence in the first place or detecting it early when it may be most treatable. Colorectal cancer is preventable when polyps are found and removed. It is highly curable when found in its early stages.

  • Screening colonoscopy starting at age 50 and every 5-10 years thereafter.   However, some physicians recommend more frequent screening (5-year intervals).  Also, patients who have had direct blood relatives with colon cancer or colon polyps should be screened at earlier ages, depending on the recommendation of their physician.   If through screening, patients are found to have colon polyps, they can be removed at the times of the procedure.  These patients should then undergo surveillance colonoscopy on a more frequent basis, depending on factors such as, the number of polyps and their pathologic characteristics.  Note: It is important to have screening tests that examine the entire colon because cancer can occur anywhere in the colon.(5)
  • Avoid excess body fat There is convincing evidence that excess body fat substantially increases the risk for many types of cancer. While much of the cancer-related nutrition information cautions against a high-fat diet, the real culprit may be an excess of calories. Studies indicate that there is little, if any, relationship between body fat and fat composition of the diet. These studies show that excessive caloric intake from both fats and carbohydrates lead to the same result of excess body fat.
  • Exercise regularly: Higher levels of physical activity may reduce the incidence of some cancers. According to researchers at Harvard, if the entire population increased their level of physical activity by 30 minutes of brisk walking per day (or the equivalent energy expenditure in other activities), we would observe a 15% reduction in the incidence of colon cancer.
  • Replace red meat with chicken, fish, nuts and legumes. It is still important to limit fat intake, as evidence still supports a relationship between cancer and polyunsaturated, saturated and animal fats. Specifically, studies show that high consumption of red meat and dairy products can increase the risk of certain cancers.
  • Eat at least 5 servings per day of fruits and vegetables. High fruit and vegetable consumption has been associated with a reduced risk for developing at least 10 different cancers. Some researchers believe that this may be a result of potentially protective factors such as carotenoids, folic acid, vitamin C, flavonoids, phytoestrogens and isothiocyanates, often referred to as antioxidants.
  • Quit smoking if you smoke Alcohol in combination with tobacco creates an even greater risk.
  • Limit alcohol consumption Many studies have linked alcohol use to an increased risk of cancers of the stomach, esophagus, liver, breast, and colon. Research shows that men who have two alcoholic drinks per day, and women who have one alcoholic drink per day, have an increased chance of developing certain cancers. The more alcohol a person consumes, the higher his or her risk of developing some kind of cancer.(6)
Signs and Symptoms from the Colorectal Cancer Network(5)

This cancer usually does NOT exhibit signs in its early stages. As the disease progresses, any of the following may be seen:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bowel obstruction, causing nausea, vomiting and abdominal distention
  • Abdominal pain
  • Pelvic pain
  • Anemia
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
Video Tutorials

Colonoscopy from Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health
Sigmoidoscopy from Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health
Barium Enema from Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health
Colon Cancer from Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health

Support Groups for Cancer Patients and their Families in Pinellas County, Florida
  • American Cancer Society - Cancer Support Group for any person with cancer or those who provide emotional support to cancer patients. Registration is recommended. (No fees) The following groups are offered:
    • Largo Medical Center, 201 14th St., SW, Largo, FL . Call (727)-588-5702
    • St. Petersburg General Hospital, 6500 38th Ave.,m N., St. Petersburg, FL 33710; Call (727)-384-1414
    • Powell Cancer Pavillion, 303 Pinellas St., Clearwater, FL Call (727)-462-2139
    • Sun Coast Hospital, 2025 Indian Rocks Rd, Largo, FL 33774
  • American Cancer Society - Caregivers Support Group
    • Powell Cancer Pavillion, 303 Pinellas St., Clearwater, FL; Call (727) 462-2139 (No fees)
  • Moffitt:  Support Group, H Lee Moffitt Center, Tampa  Call 1-888-MOFFITT 
  • Cancer Hope Network: Cancer Support Counseling (Free one-on-one support for newly diagnosed cancer patients and their families) Call 1-877-HOPENET
Organizations for Colon Cancer
Colorectal Cancer Network
PO Box 182, Kensington, MD 20895-0182, Phone: (301)-879-1500
Colon Cancer Alliance
175 Ninth Avenue, New York, NY 10011, Phone: (212)-627-7451
Cancer Care
275 7th Avenue, New York, NY 10001, Phone: (800)-813-HOPE
The American Cancer Society
Phone: 1-800-ACS-2345
Internet References

(1) Lower your Risk of Colon Cancer; An Interactive Questionnaire from Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention
(2) Detailed Treatment Guide about Colon and Rectal Cancer from the American Cancer Society.
(3) Colorectal Cancer Fact Sheet about Incidence & Prevention from Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention
(4) Colon Cancer from
(5) Colon Cancer Prevention/Signs and Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer from the Colorectal Cancer Network

--Written by N Thompson, ARNP October 2004, Updated November 2005

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