Colorectal Cancer: Overview (2023)

What is colorectal cancer?

Cancer starts when cells change (mutate) and grow out of control. The changed (abnormal) cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cancer cells can also grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can spread to other parts of the body, too. This is called metastasis.

Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in either your colon or your rectum. These make up the lower part of your digestive or gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Both types of cancer have a lot in common. So they're often called colorectal cancer.

The colon and rectum make up the large intestine. This is sometimes called the large bowel. The colon is a muscular tube about 5 feet long. It forms the last part of the digestive tract. It absorbs water from the remaining food matter. The rectum is the last 6 inches at the end of the digestive tract. It acts as a storage space before waste (feces or stool) leaves the body through the anus. The colon and rectum are made up of many layers. Both have a wet inner lining made of millions of cells.

Changes in the cells that line the inside of the colon or rectum can lead to growths called polyps. Over time, some types of polyps can become cancer. The type of polyp that most often develops into cancer is called an adenoma or an adenomatous polyp. Adenocarcinoma is the name of the cancer that starts in these polyps. They're the most common type of colorectal tumor. Removing polyps early (when they're small) may stop cancer from ever forming.

Who is at risk for colorectal cancer?

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change.

The risk factors for colorectal cancer include:

  • Being over age 50

  • Being black or Ashkenazi Jewish

  • Being male

  • History of colorectal polyps

  • History of colon, rectum, or ovarian cancer

  • Having ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease

  • Family history of colon or rectum cancer

  • Certain inherited syndromes, such as Lynch syndrome (HNPCC) or familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)

  • Obesity

  • Not being active

  • A diet high in red meats and processed meats

  • Drinking a lot of alcohol

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  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Smoking

Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for colorectal cancer and what you can do about them.

Can colorectal cancer be prevented?

There's no sure way to prevent colorectal cancer. But you can make changes that can help you control some of the risks.Having a healthy lifestyle may help to lower your risk for colorectal cancer. This includes:

Talk with your healthcare provider about what you can do to help prevent colorectal cancer.

Are there screening tests for colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer may be found with a screening test. Screening means checking for a health problem before a person has symptoms. It may find some types of cancer early, when they’re small, haven't spread, and are often easier to treat.

The screening tests to find polyps or colorectal cancer or both are:

  • Colonoscopy

  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy

  • Virtual colonoscopy (CT colonography)

  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) or fecal immunochemical test (FIT)

  • Stool DNA test

Experts say screening should start at age 45 for people who are at average risk for colorectal cancer. Screening may be advised earlier if you are at higher risk. Talk with your healthcare provider about screening to make the choice that's best for you.

What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?

People with colorectal cancer seldom have symptoms right away. By the time symptoms start, the cancer may have grown or spread to other organs. This can make it harder to treat. That’s why routine colorectal cancer screening is important. Symptoms can include:

  • A change in bowel habits that lasts for more than a few days, such as diarrhea, constipation, or a feeling that your bowel is not empty after a bowel movement

  • Bright red or very dark blood in your stool

  • Constant tiredness

  • Stools that are thinner than usual

  • Stools that look slimy or have mucous on them

  • Ongoing gas pains, bloating, fullness, or cramps

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Vomiting

Many of these may be caused by other health problems. Still, it's important to see your healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have cancer.

(Video) Colorectal Cancer: An overview

How is colorectal cancer diagnosed?

If your healthcare provider thinks you may have colorectal cancer, exams and tests will be needed to know for sure. Your healthcare provider will ask you about your health history, your symptoms, risk factors, and family history of disease. A physical exam will be done.

A biopsy is the only way to be sure of a colorectal cancer diagnosis. The most common type of biopsy is an endoscopic biopsy. This is usually done during a colonoscopy. A small piece of the changed tissue is taken out and checked for cancer cells. It usually takes several days for the results of your biopsy to come back.

After a diagnosis of colorectal cancer, you'll need more tests. These help your healthcare providers learn more about your overall health and the cancer. They're used to find out the stage of the cancer. The stage is how much cancer there is and how far it has spread (metastasized) in your body. It's one of the most important things to know when deciding how to treat the cancer.

Once your cancer is staged, your healthcare provider will talk with you about what the stage means for your treatment. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider to explain the details of your cancer to you in a way you can understand.

How is colorectal cancer treated?

Your treatment choices depend on the type of colorectal cancer you have, test results, and the stage of the cancer. The goal of treatment may be to cure you, control the cancer, or help ease problems caused by the cancer. Talk with your healthcare team about your treatment choices, the goals of treatment, and possible risks and side effects. Other things to think about are if the cancer can be removed with surgery, how your body will look and work after treatment, and your overall health.

Types of treatment for cancer are either local or systemic. Local treatments remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in one area. Surgery and radiation are local treatments. Systemic treatment is used to destroy or control cancer cells that may have traveled around your body. When taken by pill or injection, chemotherapy and targeted therapy are systemic treatments. You may have just one treatment or a combination of treatments. Tests will be done during treatment to see how well it's working.

Types of treatment for colorectal cancer include:

  • Surgery

  • Chemotherapy

  • Radiation therapy

  • Targeted therapy

  • Immunotherapy

  • Ablation and embolization

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  • Supportive care to ease symptoms of treatment or the cancer

Researchers are always looking for new ways to treat cancer. These new methods are tested in clinical trials. Talk with your healthcare provider to find out if there are any clinical trials you should think about.

Talk with your healthcare providers about your treatment options. Make a list of questions. Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each option. Talk about your concerns with your healthcare provider before making a decision.

What are treatment side effects?

Cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, can damage normal cells. This can cause side effects like hair loss, mouth sores, and vomiting. Talk with your healthcare provider about side effects linked with your treatment. There are often ways to manage them.There may be things you can do and medicines you can take to help prevent or control many treatment side effects.

Colorectal cancer and its treatment may permanently change the way you pass stool from your body. It happens when surgery is done to take out the colon with cancer and create a colostomy. This is a new opening (stoma) on your belly. It's covered with a pouch that sticks to your skin and collects stool.

Coping with colorectal cancer

Many people feel worried, depressed, and stressed when dealing with cancer. Getting treatment for cancer can be hard on your mind and body. Keep talking with your healthcare team about any problems or concerns you have. Work together to ease the effect of cancer and its symptoms on your daily life.

Here are some tips:

  • Talk with your family or friends.

  • Ask your healthcare team or social worker for help.

  • Speak with a counselor.

  • Talk with a spiritual advisor, such as a minister or rabbi.

  • Ask your healthcare team about medicines for depression or anxiety.

  • Keep socially active.

  • Join a cancer support group.

Cancer treatment is also hard on the body. To help yourself stay healthier, try to:

  • Eat a healthy diet, with a focus on high-protein foods.

  • Drink plenty of water, fruit juices, and other liquids.

  • Keep physically active.

  • Rest as much as needed.

  • Talk with your healthcare team about ways to manage treatment side effects.

  • Take your medicines as directed by your team.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Your healthcare provider will talk with you about when to call. You may be told to call if you have any of the below:

(Video) Colorectal Cancer, Colon Cancer, Rectal Cancer - Overview, Risk Factors, Symptoms and Screening

  • New symptoms or symptoms that get worse

  • Signs of an infection, such as a fever

  • Side effects of treatment that affect your daily function or don't get better with treatment

Ask your healthcare provider what symptoms to watch for and when to call. Know how to get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.

Key points about colorectal cancer

  • Colorectal cancer most often starts in the inner lining of the colon or rectum. These organs make up the end of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or digestive system.

  • Screening tests can be used to help look for colorectal cancers before they cause symptoms. This is important because symptoms may not start until the tumor is big or has spread.

  • Symptoms can include changes in your bowel movements, blood in stool, belly pain or cramps, unplanned weight loss, and extreme tiredness.

  • Colonoscopy, blood tests, and a biopsy are usually needed to diagnose colorectal cancer.

  • Treatment can include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Many times more than 1 type of treatment is used.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer:Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer:L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer:Todd Gersten MD

Date Last Reviewed:3/1/2021

(Video) Lunch and Learn: Updates in Colorectal Cancer

© 2023 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.


What are 4 common risk factors for colorectal cancer? ›

Lack of regular physical activity. A diet low in fruit and vegetables. A low-fiber and high-fat diet, or a diet high in processed meats. Overweight and obesity.

What is colorectal cancer introduction? ›

Colorectal cancer begins when healthy cells in the lining of the colon or rectum change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body.

What is colorectal cancer and what are its causes? ›

What causes colorectal cancer? Colorectal cancer forms when the DNA in cells in the colon or rectum develop mutations that may make them unable to control growth and division. In many cases, these mutated cells die or are attacked by the immune system.

What does colorectal cancer start from? ›

Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in the large intestine (colon) or the rectum (end of the colon). Other types of cancer can affect the colon. These include lymphoma, carcinoid tumors, melanoma, and sarcomas.

What are the warning signs of colon cancer? ›

6 Early Warning Symptoms of Colon Cancer
  • Bleeding. Watch out for bright red rectal bleeding or dark, tarry stools, which could indicate the presence of blood.
  • Stomach pain. Look for persistent abdominal pain, discomfort, or bloating.
  • Change in bowel habits. ...
  • Tenesmus. ...
  • Unexplained weight loss. ...
  • Fatigue/weakness.
Jun 13, 2019

Who gets colon cancer the most? ›

African Americans and Jewish people of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) have the highest incidence of colon cancer.

What are the two types of colorectal cancers? ›

There are many types of colorectal cancer, the most common of which is adenocarcinoma. Other types include carcinoid tumors, gastrointestinal stromal tumors, colorectal lymphoma.

What type of cancer is colorectal? ›

Colorectal cancer develops in the colon or in the rectum. If it starts in the colon, it may be referred to as colon cancer. If it starts in the rectum, it may be called rectal cancer. Regardless of where they start, however, these cancers share a lot in common, which is why they're together known as colorectal cancer.

How can you prevent colorectal cancer? ›

Some studies suggest that people may reduce their risk of developing colorectal cancer by increasing physical activity, keeping a healthy weight, limiting alcohol consumption, and avoiding tobacco.

Why is colorectal cancer so common? ›

But they do know some factors that raise the risk of colorectal cancer in older adults, including obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking. “Some of those [risk factors] have become more common over the last 45 years, along with this rise in early-onset cases,” said Daschner, who helped plan the think tank.

How survivable is colorectal cancer? ›

If the cancer is diagnosed at a localized stage, the survival rate is 91%. If the cancer has spread to surrounding tissues or organs and/or the regional lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate is 72%. If colon cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, the 5-year survival rate is 14%.

What is the difference between colorectal cancer and colon cancer? ›

Colorectal cancer is a disease in which cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control. Sometimes it is called colon cancer, for short. The colon is the large intestine or large bowel. The rectum is the passageway that connects the colon to the anus.

How fast can colon cancer spread? ›

How fast does colon cancer spread? Colorectal cancer tends to spread to the liver and lungs 2 years after initial cancer surgery. A 2018 study looked at Swedish people with colorectal cancer.

Where does colorectal cancer spread to first? ›

Metastatic Colorectal Cancer May Spread Early in the Disease, Study Finds. Colorectal cancer cells can break away from the original tumor and travel through the blood or lymph system to other parts of the body, including the liver, lungs, and brain.

Does colon cancer show up in blood work? ›

No blood test can tell you if you have colon cancer. But your doctor may test your blood for clues about your overall health, such as kidney and liver function tests. Your doctor may also test your blood for a chemical sometimes produced by colon cancers (carcinoembryonic antigen, or CEA).

What are the red flags for bowel cancer? ›

Bowel obstruction

intermittent, and occasionally severe, abdominal pain – this is always brought on by eating. unintentional weight loss – with persistent abdominal pain. constant swelling of the tummy – with abdominal pain. being sick – with constant abdominal swelling.

How long can colon cancer go unnoticed? ›

Some patients under 50 experience symptoms for up to a year before seeing a doctor prompting some experts to encourage earlier screening. Many younger patients with colon cancer are initially misdiagnosed, which often leads to their disease being discovered at an advanced stage.

Can colon cancer be caused by stress? ›

Stress can speed up the spread of cancer throughout the body, especially in ovarian, breast and colorectal cancer. When the body becomes stressed, neurotransmitters like norepinephrine are released, which stimulate cancer cells.

Can you live a full life after colon cancer? ›

Myth: Most of the time, when you are diagnosed with colon cancer, it is already spreading to other parts of your body. Fact: This is simply not true. The majority of patients diagnosed with colon cancer can be treated and will go on to live normal lives.

Do you poop more with colon cancer? ›

Most patients with bowel cancer present with one of the following symptom combinations: a persistent change in bowel habit, causing them to go to the toilet more often and pass looser stools, usually together with blood on or in their stools.

What foods cause polyps in the colon? ›

Research suggests that eating less of the following foods may have health benefits and may lower your chances of developing polyps:
  • fatty foods, such as fried foods.
  • red meat, such as beef and pork.
  • processed meat, such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and lunch meats.

What is the main cause of colon polyps? ›

Mutations in certain genes can cause cells to continue dividing even when new cells aren't needed. In the colon and rectum, this unregulated growth can cause polyps to form. Polyps can develop anywhere in your large intestine.

How often should you have a colonoscopy if polyps are found? ›

In 1 to 7 years, depending on a variety of factors: The number, size and type of polyps removed; if you have a history of polyps in previous colonoscopy procedures; if you have certain genetic syndromes; or if you have a family history of colon cancer.

Where is colorectal cancer most common? ›

Colorectal cancer rates
7 more rows

How is colorectal cancer diagnosed? ›

A colonoscopy is the most common test used to diagnose colorectal cancer. During a colonoscopy, the doctor looks inside the colon and rectum using a flexible tube with a light and lens on the end (called an endoscope).

What foods fight colorectal cancer? ›

Below are some food groups that can help you prevent colon cancer inception.
  • Fish. Fresh fish high in omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation in the body. ...
  • Fruits. ...
  • Non-starchy vegetables. ...
  • White Meat. ...
  • Whole grains. ...
  • Nuts. ...
  • Beans and Legumes.

What feeds colon cancer? ›

Just like processed meats, processed grains can also increase your risk of colon cancer. Refined grains in white bread and other white flour foods can increase blood sugar levels, which lead to insulin resistance. This can raise your risk of colon cancer—as well as other cancers like kidney cancer.

What foods reduce colorectal cancer? ›

Diets that include lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains have been linked with a decreased risk of colon or rectal cancer. Also, eat less red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) and processed meats (hot dogs and some luncheon meats), which have been linked with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Can you live 10 years with colon cancer? ›

Increasingly, however, we are seeing patients survive for a decade and even longer. As a result, more and more we are shifting our focus to “managing cancer.” But what exactly does that mean? For some patients, colorectal cancer becomes a chronic disease with ongoing treatment, similar to heart disease or diabetes.

What cancer has the lowest survival rate? ›

Cancer survival rates by cancer type

The cancers with the lowest five-year survival estimates are mesothelioma (7.2%), pancreatic cancer (7.3%) and brain cancer (12.8%). The highest five-year survival estimates are seen in patients with testicular cancer (97%), melanoma of skin (92.3%) and prostate cancer (88%).

What age does colon cancer start? ›

Colorectal cancer can occur in young adults and teenagers, but the majority of colorectal cancers occur in people older than 50. For colon cancer, the average age at the time of diagnosis for men is 68 and for women is 72. For rectal cancer, it is age 63 for both men and women.

What is the best treatment for colorectal cancer? ›

Surgery. The treatment of choice for colon cancer is surgical resection, which involves removing the cancer through surgery. Surgery is performed to remove the cancer completely and reconstruct the bowel, if possible, so your postoperative bowel function is normal or near normal.

Is colon cancer the deadliest cancer? ›

Not counting some kinds of skin cancer, colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in men and women. It is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. The Colorectal Cancer Stat Bite provides an overview of incidence, deaths, stage distribution, and five-year relative survival.

Is colon cancer one of the deadliest cancers? ›

Deaths from colorectal cancer. In the United States, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women, and it's the second most common cause of cancer deaths when numbers for men and women are combined. It's expected to cause about 52,550 deaths during 2023.

Can you get colon cancer 3 years after colonoscopy? ›

Approximately 6% of colorectal cancers are diagnosed within 3 to 5 years after the patient received a colonoscopy, according to findings from a recent population-based study.

How long does colon cancer take to spread to liver? ›

About 20% to 25% of people are first diagnosed with colon cancer after the cancer has already spread to the liver, according to a study in Euroasian Journal of Hepato-Gastroenterology, and 40% to 50% see spread to the liver within three years of the original colon cancer diagnosis.

Where does colon cancer hurt? ›

What Are the Symptoms? Abdominal pain, aches, or cramps may be symptoms of colorectal cancer. If you have any symptoms that worry you, be sure to see your doctor right away.

How often is colon cancer caught early? ›

But only about 4 out of 10 colorectal cancers are found at this early stage. When cancer has spread outside the colon or rectum, survival rates are lower.

How long does it take for colorectal cancer to show symptoms? ›

Colon cancer is typically slow-growing, starting as a benign polyp that eventually becomes malignant. This process may occur over many years without producing any symptoms. Once colon cancer has developed, it may still be years before it is detected.

How long does it take for colon cancer to spread to bones? ›

The average time for colon cancer to metastasize from the liver to bone was 8.3 months (± 13.4, CI 0.6–15.9), whereas the time to metastasize from lung to bone was 3.3 months (± 4.2, CI 0.7–5.9).

What are the 5 major risk factors for cancer? ›

Leading risk factors for preventable cancers are smoking, getting too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds, being overweight or having obesity, and drinking too much alcohol.

What are 6 risk factors for cancer? ›

Tobacco use, infectious agents, unhealthy diet, excess body weight, physical inactivity, and alcohol consumption account for the majority of cancer deaths caused by known risk factors.

What are the 7 risk factors that can lead to the development of cancer? ›

The most common risk factors for cancer include aging, tobacco, sun exposure, radiation exposure, chemicals, and other substances, some viruses and bacteria, certain hormones, family history of cancer, alcohol, poor diet, lack of physical activity, or being overweight.

What is the most preventable cancer? ›

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer. Once a leading cause of cancer death in the US, cervical cancer rates have plummeted. Regular screenings with Pap tests and human papillomavirus (HPV) tests can help prevent the disease or catch it early when it's most treatable.

Can stress cause cancer? ›

While plenty of research has shown that stress can cause cancer to grow and spread in mice, studies haven't shown a clear link between stress and cancer outcomes in people. But it's difficult to study stress in people for several reasons, including challenges with defining and measuring stress.

What is the ultimate cause of cancer? ›

Genetics. Genes are the ultimate cause of all cancers, but in the vast majority of cases, these are acquired mutations that are not passed on to your children. You have "healthy" genes, but a mutation happens to one cell and then is able to grow out of control.

What are the top 3 most common cancers? ›

The most common type of cancer on the list is breast cancer, with 290,560 new cases expected in the United States in 2022. The next most common cancers are prostate cancer and lung cancer. Because colon and rectal cancers are often referred to as "colorectal cancers," these two cancer types are combined for the list.

How does alcohol cause cancer? ›

Why Does Alcohol Use Raise Cancer Risk? When you drink alcohol, your body breaks it down into a chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde damages your DNA and prevents your body from repairing the damage. DNA is the cell's “instruction manual” that controls a cell's normal growth and function.

What are 4 uncontrollable risk factors for cancer? ›

Other uncontrollable factors include:
  • Previous cancer diagnosis.
  • Family history of cancer.
  • Infections or viruses, such as helicobacter pylori (H. ...
  • Genetics or inherited cancer syndromes, such as Lynch syndrome, or inherited mutations such as BRCA1 or BRCA2.
Jun 13, 2022

What blood type is at risk of cancer? ›

Conclusions: Blood group A is associated with increased risk of cancer, and blood group O is associated with decreased risk of cancer.

What are 10 ways to prevent cancer? ›

Consider these lifestyle tips to help prevent cancer.
  1. Don't use tobacco. ...
  2. Eat a healthy diet. ...
  3. Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active. ...
  4. Protect yourself from the sun. ...
  5. Get vaccinated. ...
  6. Avoid risky behaviors. ...
  7. Get regular medical care.

Can a blood test detect cancer in the body? ›

Most blood tests aren't used on their own to diagnose cancer. But they can provide clues that may lead your health care team to make the diagnosis. For most types of cancer, a procedure to remove a sample of cells for testing is often needed to be sure.

What does cancer pain feel like? ›

Cancer pain can be described as dull aching, pressure, burning, or tingling. The type of pain often gives clues about the sources of the pain. For example, pain caused by damage to nerves is usually described as burning or tingling, whereas pain affecting internal organs is often described as a sensation of pressure.


1. Contemporary Management of Metastatic Colorectal Cancer
(Cleveland Clinic)
2. Colorectal Cancer – An Introduction, with Jeffrey A. Meyerhardt, MD, MPH
3. Understanding Colorectal Cancer (Includes Polyps)
(Rhesus Medicine)
4. Colorectal Cancer Surgery: principles and types
(Oncology for Medical Students)
5. 5 Stages of Colorectal Cancer Explained | Parkway Cancer Centre
(Parkway Cancer Centre)
6. Understanding Colorectal Cancer
(Nucleus Medical Media)
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