What does your colon do? Your colon, also called your large intestine, is a tube-like structure in your lower digestive system. The last several inches of your colon is called your rectum. The two work together to absorb water and pass waste through and from your body.
What is colon cancer? Colon cancer, often called colorectal cancer, is a cancer of your lower digestive tract. Most colon cancers start as small bumps, called polyps, in your colon’s lining. Some polyps can turn into cancer.
What are your colon cancer risks? The exact cause of colon cancer is unknown, but some factors put you at a higher risk. Talk to your doctor if you:
- Are over 45 years old, although incidents are rising in Americans between the ages of 20 and 45.
- Are African American or of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.
- Have a personal history of colon cancer or polyps.
- Have a family history of colon cancer or polyps.
- Eat a diet high in red or processed meats or low in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
- Don’t get regular exercise.
- Are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
- Are obese.
- Are a heavy drinker (more than two drinks per day for men and more than one drink per day for women).
- Have had radiation therapy in your abdominal area.
- Have a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as ulcerative colitis or Chron’s disease.
What are some colon cancer symptoms? These symptoms commonly occur with aggressive colorectal cancer, since it often shows no early signs. See your doctor if you notice:
- Blood in your stools or from your rectum.
- An urgency to move your bowels.
- Persistent stomach cramps, bloating, or gas.
- Unexplained, sudden weight loss.
- The feeling your bowels aren’t really emptying.
- Frequent weakness or fatigue.
- Dark patches of blood in or on stool; or long, thin “pencil stools.”
How can you determine if you have polyps or colon cancer?
Men and women age 45 or older should have a discussion with their physician
about screening options. The American Cancer Society recommends that people at average risk of colorectal cancer start regular screening at age 45.
For screening, people are considered to be at average risk if they do not have:
- A personal history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps
- A family history of colorectal cancer
- A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
- A confirmed or suspected hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome (hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer or HNPCC)
- A personal history of getting radiation to the abdomen (belly) or pelvic area to treat a prior cancer
Some patients need to have a screening colonoscopy earlier based on individual risk factors.
A colonoscopy is the most common way to diagnose or rule out colon cancer. It’s a visual exam of your colon, which uses a tiny, lighted, flexible camera that’s inserted through your anus and is gently bent throughout your colon. Colonoscopy allows your doctor to view your colon entirely and make the most accurate diagnosis. Your doctor will help you determine when and how often to have a colonoscopy.