Colon cancer (also known as bowel cancer or colorectal cancer) describes any type of cancer which affects the last section of the digestive system. This is usually the colon (large bowel) or the or rectum (back passage). According to Bowel Cancer UK it is “the third most common cancer in the UK affecting men and women”. It is also the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK affecting men and women accounting for over 16,000 fatalities each year.
Colon cancer usually develops from polyps (fleshy growths) in the intestine. Many of these polyps are benign (non-cancerous) but some are malignant (cancerous). If these malignant polyps are left untreated colon cancer can develop and over time these cancerous growths can then spread to other areas of the body.
Although we understand how colon cancer develops the exact causes are unknown. However, there are a number of associated risk factors:
1) AGE: Your risk of contracting colon cancer increases as you age. 85% of colon cancer diagnoses occur in people over the age of 60 and cases of colon cancer in those younger than 50 are rare.
2) ALCOHOL: A number of studies have looked at the links between colon cancer and alcohol and the results have been mixed. However, according to About.com the type of alcohol consumed plays a key role. Beer and spirits are both believed to increase your risk of developing colon cancer whilst drinking wine in moderation (one or two glasses a week) could lower your risk by up to 60%.
3) DIET: According to this study from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) diets that are high in red and processed meat increase the risk of colon cancer. The study looked at 500,000 people across Europe for a period of 10 years and suggested that the risk for bowel cancer was a third higher in people who regularly ate more than two 80 gram portions of red or processed meat per day compared with those who ate less than one per week. The study also found that a low fibre diet increased the risk of colon cancer and that individuals who ate one or more portions of fish every other day were almost a third less likely to develop bowel cancer than those who ate fish less than once a week.
4) FAMILY HISTORY: If you have a family history of colon cancer it not only increases your risk of contracting the disease but it also increases your risk of developing it early. Furthermore, there a number of hereditary diseases which can increase your risk of getting colon cancer including familial adenomatous polyposis (a hereditary disease where multiple polyps form in the large intestine and can transform into colon cancer if left untreated) and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (inherited mutations that reduce the self repair capacity of DNA, increasing the risk of cancer).
5) INFLAMMATORY BOWEL DISEASE: This refers to a number of inflammatory conditions which affect the large intestine. The two main forms are Crohn’s disease (an autoimmune disease which affects the digestive tract) and ulcerative colitis (a condition where ulcers develop within the intestine).
6) SEDENTARY LIFESTYLE: According to this article from Cancer Research UK the risk of contracting colon cancer is halved in those who exercise regularly. Therefore, leading a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk for developing colon cancer.
7) SMOKING: Smokers are believed to be up to three times more likely to develop colon cancer than none smokers.
There are a number of symptoms associated with colon cancer. In the beginning the symptoms can be quite general but they often get worse as the malignant tumour grows. The symptoms include:
1) ABDOMINAL PAIN: Any prolonged abdominal pain should be treated with suspicion.
2) BLOODY STOOLS OR RECTAL BLEEDING: This is probably the most common symptom of colon cancer. If you notice any blood in your faeces or coming out of your anus you should go see your doctor immediately.
3) CHANGES IN YOUR BOWEL MOVEMENTS: This often happens in the form of constipation (when you have difficulty passing stools because they become hardened) or diarrhoea (when your stools become watery and it becomes difficult to control the frequency of your bowel movements). Any change in your bowel movement which lasts for more than a couple of weeks should be treated with suspicion.
4) UNEXPLAINED TIREDNESS
5) UNEXPLAINED WEIGHT LOSS
If you notice any of the above symptoms you should go see your doctor immediately. They will then be able to investigate further for colon cancer. The first stage of this investigation will usually involve your doctor performing a rectal exam with a gloved finger to feel for any lumps or swelling. If after this initial exam your doctor feels that you need further treatment he may pass you on to a hospital for a colonoscopy. This is a procedure where a fibre optic camera is passed through the anus via a flexible tube, allowing your doctor to perform a visual analysis.
If you are diagnosed with colon cancer it then needs to be staged before an appropriate treatment can be offered. One of the most common stageing methods is Duke’s classification which stages colon cancer in the following way:
1) DUKE A: When the cancer is in the lining of your colon or rectum.
2) DUKE B: When the cancer has grown into the muscle layer in the colon or rectum wall.
3) DUKE C: When the cancer has spread to at least one lymph node gland (glands which remove unwanted bacteria from your body).
4) DUKE D: When the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, usually your liver or lungs.
Colon cancer which is diagnosed in the early stages is much more treatable than colon cancer which is in the latter stages. Surgery is the most common treatment for colon cancer but chemotherapy and radiotherapy are also viable alternatives:
1) SURGERY: Surgery attempts to remove the cancerous cells from the colon. In most cases the bowel can be stitched back together following surgery but if not then a colostomy (a surgical procedure which attaches part of the colon to the abdominal wall). may have to be performed.
2) CHEMOTHERAPY: This involves using anti-cancer medications to eradicate cancerous cells. It can be used to treat colon cancer but is more commonly used to shrink the malignant tumour prior to surgery.
3) RADIOTHERAPY: This involves using high energy radiation beams to kill cancer cells and prevent them from spreading. Again this treatment is more commonly used to shrink malignant tumours before surgery.
Following your colon cancer treatment your doctor may then recommend continuing with chemotherapy or radiotherapy to reduce the risk of the cancer returning.
Although the above treatments may be required to treat your colon cancer, if you have not yet been diagnosed it makes sense to take preventative action so that you never have to go through the complications of surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. There are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of developing colon cancer:
1) EXERCISE REGULARLY: One of the risk factors for colon cancer is a sedentary lifestyle. By exercising regularly (30 minutes for at least 5 days a week) you can notably reduce your risk of contracting colon cancer.
2) IMPROVE YOUR DIET: As identified earlier in this article, a diet that is high in red or processed meat and low in fibre can increase your chances of developing colon cancer. Therefore, by cutting down on your intake of red and processed meat and getting plenty of fibre (from fruits, vegetables and whole grains) you can reduce your risk of contracting colon cancer. Moderating your alcohol intake is another dietary change you can make to further reduce your risk.
3) QUIT SMOKING: Smoking puts you at risk for a number of cancer types including colon cancer. By kicking the habit you can cut your risk considerably.
4) REGULAR SCREENING: The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Program is being rolled out nationally and is expected to achieve nationwide coverage by 2009. The aim of the program is to detect bowel cancer at an early stage which will ensure more effective treatment. The program offers screening every two years for those aged between 60 and 69. As you age your risk of getting colon cancer increases so getting screened regularly is essential. The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Program provides you with the perfect opportunity to do just that.
Colon cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the UK. However, it is highly treatable when caught early. I hope this article has helped you fully understand the risks associated with colon cancer and more importantly inspires you to take preventative action. By making a few positive lifestyle changes you can hopefully improve your fitness levels and live a life that is free from colon cancer.
Whilst every intention has been made to make this article accurate and informative, it is intended for general information only. Colon cancer is a very serious, life threatening condition and you should discuss any concerns, treatments or lifestyle changes fully with your doctor.
Alcohol and Colon Cancer (About)
Bowel Cancer Information (Bowel Cancer UK)
Cancer of the Colon (NHS Direct)
Colon Cancer Information (Wikipedia)
Colon Information (Wikipedia)
Colorectal (Bowel) Cancer Information (BBC)
Colorectal Polyp Information (Wikipedia)
Colostomy Information (Wikipedia)
Crohn’s Disease Information (Wikipedia)
Diet and Colon Cancer Information (BBC)
Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (Wikipedia)
Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer Information (Wikipedia)
Inflammatory Bowel Disease Information (Wikipedia)
NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Program Information (NHS)
Protecting against Bowel Cancer (Cancer Research UK)
Rectum Information (Wikipedia)
Smoking and Bowel Cancer (Cancer Backup)