What Is Colorectal Cancer?

Category: Cancer

A medical illustration of a colorectal cancer polyp.

Nobody wants to talk about bathroom issues. But being honest with your doctor if you’re having an issue and knowing everything you can about preventing colorectal cancer could potentially save your life. Keep reading to learn more about colorectal cancer.

So, what exactly is colorectal cancer?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colorectal cancer is when cells in the colon or rectum grow uncontrollably creating cancerous polyps. Polyps are growths that occur in the colon and/or rectum. Initially, these growths are not usually a problem, but if not found and removed through a routine screening, they can develop into cancer over time.

What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?

According to the Mayo Clinic, many people do not experience any symptoms in the early stages of colorectal cancer. However, some of the symptoms of colorectal cancer can include:

  • Continued alteration in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation, or a change in the consistency of your fecal matter
  • Blood in the feces or rectal bleeding
  • Continual stomach pain, gas, or cramping
  • A feeling like your intestine doesn’t fully empty
  • Lethargy
  • Losing weight without reason

What causes colorectal cancer?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, medical experts still aren’t sure why some people develop cancerous polyps. However, many risk factors have been found to increase your likelihood of developing colorectal cancer.

How to prevent colorectal cancer

According to the Cleveland Clinic report, some of the factors that are thought to increase the risk of colorectal cancer are beyond your control. However, in addition to regular screenings, there are a number of things you can do to decrease your likelihood of developing colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer risk factors you can control

Avoiding the following may greatly reduce your risk of colorectal cancer:

  • Tobacco in any form
  • Alcohol
  • Red meat and/or processed meat in your diet
  • Obesity
  • Overindulging in high-fat, high-calorie foods
  • Avoiding exercise

Colorectal cancer risk factors beyond your control

Discuss the possibility of early screening with your doctor if you have any of the following risk factors for colorectal cancer:

  • An inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Lynch syndrome
  • Familial adenomatous polyposis
  • A family history of colon cancer or advanced polyps
  • If your colonoscopies tend to have many polyps

Prevention tools

The following habits may help prevent colorectal cancer:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Adding an assortment of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to your diet
  • Limiting foods that are low-fiber and high-fat
  • Limiting red and processed meats to two servings (or less) per week
  • Incorporating an exercise routine you’ll stick to (ideally, 30 minutes most days)
  • Quitting drinking and smoking

How common is colorectal cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, without taking skin cancers into account, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer among men and women and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Every person will vary depending on their risk factors but, in general, men have a one in twenty-three chance of developing colorectal cancer and women have a one in twenty-six chance of developing colorectal cancer.

How is colorectal cancer diagnosed?

According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common procedure for diagnosing colon cancer is a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is also the most common screening test for early detection — you should start getting a colonoscopy at 45 or sooner, depending on your risk factors. For diagnosing cancer, the doctor will insert a tool during the colonoscopy to get a sample of the suspicious tissue so they can perform a biopsy to test for cancer.

The Cleveland Clinic notes that other tests that may be done to diagnose colon cancer can include a fecal immunochemical test (FIT), guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT), and a fecal DNA test, all of which will test your feces for the presence of blood or genetic mutations. Doctors may also use a flexible sigmoidoscopy (like a colonoscopy, but less invasive), a virtual colonoscopy (an x-ray of your colon), and other scanning tests to diagnose the extent of the cancer.

How is colorectal cancer treated?

The treatment plan will depend on the stage and the size of the cancer. Treatment often involves surgery, but other options for treating colorectal cancer include:


When cancerous polyps are removed during a routine colonoscopy, in some cases, the entirety of the cancer can be removed this way if caught in the early stages.

Endoscopic mucosal resection 

This is also done during a routine colonoscopy but involves taking a small amount of the inner layer of the intestine to ensure the cancer is out.

Laparoscopic surgery 

Small incisions are made in the abdomen, then tools and a camera are inserted so the surgeon can virtually remove the cancer less invasively. This is done when the polyps are too large to be removed with a colonoscopy but small enough to not need advanced surgery.

Partial colectomy 

This is a surgery where the doctor removes the part of the colon with cancer and a small section of the healthy colon on both sides of the cancerous section to remove the cancer and reduce the chance of it spreading. In most cases, this can be done laparoscopically, and the colon can usually be reconnected to the rectum.

An ostomy 

When a hole is created in the abdomen during a colectomy and connected to the colon to remove waste into a bag outside the body. Depending on how much of the colon needs to be removed, this can sometimes be temporary.

Removal of the lymph nodes 

Often, the lymph nodes are also removed during surgery to test for cancer.


Depending on the specific case, chemotherapy can be used to shrink tumors before surgery. This reduces the chances of recurrence after surgery and can help control symptoms and aid the quality of life in advanced stages.  


This route uses the body’s immune system to attack cancer in an attempt to shrink it or at least keep it from growing.


This method is sometimes used to shrink a tumor before surgery or if there is a tumor that cannot be operated on, it can be used to shrink the tumor to improve symptoms.

Early detection can save lives

A patient speaking to their doctor about their colorectal cancer screening results.

When caught early — when colon cancer is still localized and lacking signs that it has spread outside of the colon — colon cancer has a five-year survival rate of roughly 91%, according to the American Cancer Society. By following your doctor-recommended colorectal cancer screenings, you can help prevent premature death from colorectal cancer. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with the anticipatory grief that can come along with a cancer diagnosis, check out the behavioral therapy services offered at Haven Health.


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Survival Rates for Colorectal Cancer. (2023).
What Is Colorectal Cancer?. (2023).