Colon Cancer

Colon cancer is the 3rd most prevalent cancer in Canada and the 2nd most common cause of cancer deaths. Yet it is almost 100% preventable. Learning how to protect yourself could save your life.

What is colon cancer?

Colon cancer is a disease where cancerous cells (tumours) are present in the wall of the large intestine (colon). Most colon cancers arise from polyps. These are small growths within the colon. Over time the polyps grow and, under appropriate conditions, turn into colon cancer.

Who gets colon cancer?

The cause of colon cancer is unknown, but risk factors may include: 
  • A diet high in fat. More fibre, vegetables and fruits may lower the risk. Some vitamins, called antioxidants, like vitamin E, or others like vitamin D or the use of ASA (aspirin), may also lower the risk.
  • Smoking and obesity. Physical activity and the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may decrease the risk.
  • Heredity. People with a close relative with colon cancer or polyps should begin screening between  40-50 years old or at least 10 years younger than the relative was when diagnosed.


What are the symptoms of colon cancer?

Symptoms may justify earlier testing, so being aware of the symptoms is important. Symptoms of colon cancer, which vary depending on the cancer’s size and location, may include:
  • Bloody stools: This is the most common colon cancer symptom. The blood may be bright red but is more commonly hidden inside the stools and not visible to the naked eye.
  • Fatigue: Tumours tend to bleed which may lead to iron-deficiency anemia and accompanying feelings of extreme fatigue.
  • Constipation 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Narrow stools 
  • Sensation of “having to go”
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Gas and bloating


Don’t die of embarrassment – get screened

Screening methods lead to detection and removal of polyps and small cancers that can be easily removed. Unfortunately, by the time colon cancer causes advanced symptoms, most cancers have spread beyond the bowel and the survival rate is less than 40%.
Screening is designed to detect polyps while the person is still asymptomatic and the polyps can be completely removed. We know screening is critical to the prevention of colon cancer and yet fewer than 20% of Canadians who are eligible for screening are making use of this highly-effective prevention strategy.


Common screening tests

Common screening tests for colon cancer:
  • Digital rectal examination: Looks for lumps inside the rectum using a glove and lubricant.
  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT): Looks at three consecutive stool samples for traces of blood not visible to the eye.
  • Barium enema: Involves placing a short tube into the rectum, injecting a barium solution, and taking X-rays to view the lining of the lower digestive tract.
  • Sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy: Uses a lighted, flexible tube to examine the sigmoid colon or the entire colon (including the rectum). Colonoscopy is usually done under sedation.


Treatment options

The chance of surviving colon cancer is closely linked to what stage the disease has progressed to.
Most patients with colon cancer have resection surgery. This means the diseased segment is removed and the bowel on either side of the cancer is reunited.
Surgical removal of colon cancer offers a potential for cure. When the growth of the tumour is small and the cancer has not spread outside the bowel wall, patients do well. In this case, the 5-year survival rate is 85-95%.
Larger cancers are typically treated with surgery and chemotherapy and sometimes in combination with radiation.


Important information

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