Cancers of the large intestine are called colorectal cancer. Your lifetime risk of getting colorectal cancer is about 1 in 23 if you are a man, and slightly less than that if you are a woman. It’s the third deadliest cancer, with more than 50,000 individuals dying per year. The good news is that rates of colorectal cancer are falling, likely due to improved screening.
Because they are commonly combined into a single word, you may think that cancer of the colon and cancer of the rectum are mostly the same. They are, in fact, similar, but not identical. Most of the distinctions come from differences in location. It matters where the cancer is located, which can determine the course of action and treatment, but also the identification.
About Colon Cancer and Rectal Cancer
Most colon cancers start with small growths, called polyps, in the inner layer of the colon. Polyps usually grow slowly, but can turn into cancer over time. Early colon cancer is unlikely to cause symptoms. As the cancer grows, symptoms can worsen; individuals may suffer from belly pain, changes in the stool, and blood loss. You may not realize that you are bleeding because the blood will be brown or black by the time it leaves the body. Instead, you may notice that your stools are dark-colored.
On a cellular level, rectal cancer is the same as colon cancer. Rectal cancer grows in the last 5 inches of the colon, which is specialized to push waste material out of the body. Symptoms are similar except that blood from rectal cancer is likely to be red because it is near the exit. Also, with rectal cancer, you may have the sensation of not having completely emptied your bowels.
Differences in Treatment
The main differences between colon cancer and rectal cancer start after diagnosis. Treating rectal cancer can be trickier than treating colon cancer. To start with, the rectum lacks the protective outer layer, called the serosa, that the colon has. This makes it easier for cancer to break through the outer wall.
Also, the rectum is closely surrounded by other organs, including the bladder and reproductive organs. Surgery will be more difficult because of the cramped space, whereas operating in the abdomen allows surgeons ample room to work with. Surgeons must be careful not to damage other organs or sections of the body.
Colon cancer is treated with surgery, often followed by chemotherapy. Radiation is seldom used. On the other hand, the course for rectal cancer is less straightforward. It may involve chemotherapy and radiation used together or separately. They may be used before or after surgery. Immunotherapy, a relatively new type of cancer treatment, can be used in some cases of both colon and rectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer sometimes requires a colostomy, which is a procedure in which surgeons create an opening in the abdomen for the removal of waste. A colostomy is more likely to be needed with rectal cancer because the cancer is located so close to the anus. Doctors will attempt to preserve the ring of muscle that makes regular bowel movements possible, but sometimes they are unable to do so; as a result, a colostomy bag may be required.
The Good News
There are many actions you can take to reduce your chances of contracting colorectal cancer. The most important is to get screened, usually with a test called a colonoscopy. Screening is important because polyps can be found and removed before they turn into cancer.
Most people should begin screening at age 45, but some should begin earlier. This is especially true if you have a family history of colorectal cancer. If you do, ask your doctor when you should begin screening. You can also ask your doctor about genetic testing.
You can reduce some of your risk factors by leading a healthier lifestyle. Lose excess weight and eat a nutritious diet. Here are some steps to consider:
- Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods.
- Reduce the amount of red meat and processed meat that you eat.
- Exercise regularly.
- Don’t smoke.
- Keep your alcohol intake low.
Although colon cancer and rectal cancer can be serious, they are highly preventable. Be proactive by making positive lifestyle changes, getting screened, and going to a trusted source for medical advice.
Nevada Surgery and Cancer Center
At Nevada Surgery and Cancer Center, we can give you individualized advice about the best ways to avoid colorectal cancer. If you are dealing with cancer, our team of medical experts will give you the support and treatment that you deserve. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.