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What to Know About Colon Cancer



  • If you have a first-degree family member like your siblings or parents who were diagnosed with colon cancer at an early age, your risk could be higher.
  • Race can be a risk factor for colon cancer, with African Americans being 20% more likely to get it and 40% more likely to die from it.
  • Colon cancer is also known as colorectal cancer, and it’s the third most common cancer type in the U.

The recent death of actress Kirstie Alley is once again putting the nation’s focus and attention on colon health. As part of your regular medical diagnostic testing, your healthcare provider should be talking to you about colon health and running appropriate tests.

Kirstie Alley passed away after a diagnosis of colon cancer earlier in the year. Colon cancer is also known as colorectal cancer, and it’s the third most common cancer type in the U.S. and worldwide.

Survival rates for colon cancer vary enormously from 14-91%, depending on how invasive it is. The main determinant in the prognosis of colon cancer is the stage of the tumor.

With this in mind, the following are things to know about colon health and colon cancer.

What Does Your Colon Do?

Your colon is also called the large intestine, and it’s an organ that’s part of your digestive system.

When you eat, once you swallow food, it travels into your esophagus, which connects to your stomach. It’s then broken down in your stomach and passed to the small intestine.

Once in the small intestine, the breakdown of food continues with help from the pancreas, gallbladder, and liver. This is where your food’s nutrients and vitamins are absorbed.

There’s mostly liquid left over at this point, which moves into the colon. The colon absorbs the water, and bacteria in the colon break down whatever remains. Then, the colon moves the leftover material to where it can be taken out of the body as waste.

Is Your Colon Healthy?

Your first colonoscopy shouldn’t be the first time you start thinking about colon health. Colon health is something anyone of any age should pay attention to. Your colon helps make sure that nutrients and food are moving in your body as they should. Your colon also plays a role in the elimination of waste after your body absorbs what’s needed for energy.

If you aren’t sure whether your colon is healthy and functioning like it should consider your bowel movements. While everyone is unique, people with a healthy digestive tract will usually have a bowel movement every day or several times a week, at least.

An unhealthy colon might lead to symptoms like constipation or fewer than three bowel movements a week.

Bloating, hard stool, lower back pain, feeling like your bowel isn’t empty, and blood in your stool can also be red flags that your colon health isn’t optimal.

Colon Cancer Risk

Many times, colorectal cancer will develop without any symptoms, and it affects both men and women. It’s something that most often occurs in people 50 and older, but increasingly, younger people are becoming more affected.

Your risk of colon cancer, along with going up as you get older, can also go up depending on your family history. If you have a first-degree family member like your siblings or parents who were diagnosed with colon cancer at an early age, your risk could be higher.

Other risk factors for developing colorectal cancer are:

  • Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis
  • A personal or family history of colorectal polyps
  • A genetic syndrome like familial adenomatous polyposis
  • Limited physical activity
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • A high-fat, low-fiber diet
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Alcohol consumption
  • The use of tobacco

Race can be a risk factor for colon cancer, with African Americans being 20% more likely to get it and 40% more likely to die from it. Alaskan Americans also have a similar risk level.

Colon cancer is thought to be caused by a genetic predisposition that can then be stimulated by triggers like diet, lifestyle factors, environmental factors, and the gut microbiome.

If you think you notice blood in your stool, get a medical evaluation, and unexplained weight loss can also potentially signify colon cancer.

A change in bowel movements, newly occurring anemia, or unexplained weight loss are also red flags.

Colon Cancer Diagnostic and Staging Tests

If someone has symptoms they believe could be related to a colon condition or colon cancer, they should speak to their healthcare provider right away.

A doctor might advise further testing if a screening test shows an abnormality.

Initially, your doctor will go over your medical history and then do a physical exam. As part of your physical exam, your doctor may feel for enlarged organs or masses, and you might have a digital rectal exam to feel for areas that are abnormal.

If you’re seeing your doctor because of anemia or symptoms related to bleeding, they might do a stool test. During a stool test, the goal is to look for blood not visible to the naked eye, which is known as occult blood.

Certain diagnostic blood tests may be helpful.

A complete blood count can show anemia. Some people with colorectal cancer develop anemia because the tumor is bleeding for long periods. Your doctor might check your liver enzymes and liver function because colorectal cancer frequently spreads to the liver.

Colon cancer cells can also make tumor markers that can be found in the blood. For colorectal cancer, the most common tumor marker is CEA.

Blood tests might help paint a complete picture of someone’s health, including their colon cancer but aren’t used on their own to screen for or diagnose cancer.

Tumor marker levels can be normal in someone with cancer, and they can also be abnormal for reasons aside from cancer.

A diagnostic colonoscopy is like a screening colonoscopy, but it’s not done as part of routine screening. Instead, it’s done because someone is having symptoms or something abnormal was found on a screening test.

During a colonoscopy, the doctor looks at the length of the colon and the rectum with a thin, flexible, lighted tube.

A proctoscopy is done if rectal cancer is suspected. In this situation, the rectum is looked at with a thin, lighted tube that has a small camera on the end.

Finally, if colorectal cancer is suspected, a biopsy is done.

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