General Information About Colon Cancer

Colon cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the colon.

The colon is part of the body’s digestive system. The digestive system removes and processes nutrients (vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and water) from foods and helps pass waste material out of the body. The digestive system is made up of the esophagus, stomach, and the small and large intestines. The first 6 feet of the large intestine are called the large bowel or colon. The last 6 inches are the rectum and the anal canal. The anal canal ends at the anus (the opening of the large intestine to the outside of the body).

Gastrointestinal (digestive) system anatomy; shows esophagus, liver, stomach, colon, small intestine, rectum, and anus
Anatomy of the lower digestive system, showing the colon and other organs.

Age and health history can affect the risk of developing colon cancer.


Risk factors include the following:

  • Age 50 or older.
  • A family history of cancer of the colon or rectum.
  • A personal history of cancer of the colon, rectum, ovary, endometrium, or breast.
  • A history of polyps in the colon.

    Colon polyps; shows two polyps (one flat and one pedunculated) inside the colon.  Inset shows photo of a pedunculated polyp.
    Polyps in the colon. Some polyps have a stalk and others do not. Inset shows a photo of a polyp with a stalk.

  • A history of ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the lining of the large intestine) or Crohn's disease.
  • Certain hereditary conditions, such as familial adenomatous polyposis and hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch Syndrome).
 Video  Colon Cancer and family history. (World Heath News Today reports)

Possible signs of colon cancer include a change in bowel habits or blood in the stool.

These and other symptoms may be caused by colon cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • A change in bowel habits.
  • Blood (either bright red or very dark) in the stool.
  • Diarrhea, constipation, or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely.
  • Stools that are narrower than usual.
  • Frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness, or cramps.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Feeling very tired.
  • Vomiting.

Tests that examine the rectum, rectal tissue, and blood are used to detect (find) and diagnose colon cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Fecal occult blood test: A test to check stool (solid waste) for blood that can only be seen with a microscope. Small samples of stool are placed on special cards and returned to the doctor or laboratory for testing.

    Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) kit; shows card, applicator, and return envelope.
    Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) kit to check for blood in stool.

  • Digital rectal exam: An exam of the rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for lumps or anything else that seems unusual.
  • Barium enema: A series of x-rays of the lower gastrointestinal tract. A liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound) is put into the rectum. The barium coats the lower gastrointestinal tract and x-rays are taken. This procedure is also called a lower GI series.

    Barium enema procedure; shows barium liquid being put into the rectum and flowing through the colon.  Inset shows person on table having a barium enema.
    Barium enema procedure. The patient lies on an x-ray table. Barium liquid is put into the rectum and flows through the colon. X-rays are taken to look for abnormal areas.

  • Sigmoidoscopy: A procedure to look inside the rectum and sigmoid (lower) colon for polyps, abnormal areas, or cancer. A sigmoidoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the rectum into the sigmoid colon. Polyps or tissue samples may be taken for biopsy.

    Sigmoidoscopy; shows sigmoidoscope inserted through the anus and rectum and into the sigmoid colon.  Inset shows patient on table having a sigmoidoscopy.
    Sigmoidoscopy. A thin, lighted tube is inserted through the anus and rectum and into the lower part of the colon to look for abnormal areas.

  • Colonoscopy: A procedure to look inside the rectum and colon for polyps, abnormal areas, or cancer. A colonoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the rectum into the colon. Polyps or tissue samples may be taken for biopsy.

    Colonoscopy; shows colonoscope inserted through the anus and rectum and into the colon.  Inset shows patient on table having a colonoscopy.
    Colonoscopy. A thin, lighted tube is inserted through the anus and rectum and into the colon to look for abnormal areas.

 

 Video  Is  colonoscopy always necessary?  Dr. James Allison, professor of medicine emeritus at UCSF
 
 
 Video  (Dr. Stan Wasbin, Medical Director of Your Cancer Today, discusses colonoscopy and colon cancer.)
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.
  • Virtual colonoscopy: A procedure that uses a series of x-rays called computed tomography to make a series of pictures of the colon. A computer puts the pictures together to create detailed images that may show polyps and anything else that seems unusual on the inside surface of the colon. This test is also called colonography or CT colonography.

 Video  (Dr. Robert Shoen from the Shoen University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, discusses flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, and a new virtual colonoscopy test.)

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (whether the cancer is in the inner lining of the colon only, involves the whole colon, or has spread to other places in the body).
  • Whether the cancer has blocked or created a hole in the colon.
  • The blood levels of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA; a substance in the blood that may be increased when cancer is present) before treatment begins.
  • Whether the cancer has recurred.
  • The patient’s general health.

Treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • Whether the cancer has recurred.
  • The patient’s general health.


Stages of Colon Cancer

Key Points for This Section


After colon cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the colon or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the colon or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • Lymph node biopsy: The removal of all or part of a lymph node. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
  • Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
    • The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
    • The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
    • The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.
  • Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) assay: A test that measures the level of CEA in the blood. CEA is released into the bloodstream from both cancer cells and normal cells. When found in higher than normal amounts, it can be a sign of colon cancer or other conditions.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the colon. A substance called gadolinium is injected into the patient through a vein. The gadolinium collects around the cancer cells so they show up brighter in the picture. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Surgery: A procedure to remove the tumor and see how far it has spread through the colon.

The following stages are used for colon cancer:

Colon cancer staging; shows tumors growing through layers of the colon wall for Stage 0, Stage I, Stage II, Stage III, and Stage IV colon cancer.  Inset shows serosa, muscle, submucosa and mucosa layers of the colon wall, and lymph nodes and blood vessels.
As colon cancer progresses from Stage 0 to Stage IV, the cancer cells grow through the layers of the colon wall and spread to lymph nodes and other organs.

Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)

In stage 0, the cancer is found only in the innermost lining of the colon. Stage 0 cancer is also called carcinoma in situ.

Stage I

In stage I, the cancer has spread beyond the innermost tissue layer of the colon wall to the middle layers. Stage I colon cancer is sometimes called Dukes’ A colon cancer.

Stage II

Stage II colon cancer is divided into stage IIA and stage IIB.

  • Stage IIA: Cancer has spread beyond the middle tissue layers of the colon wall or has spread to nearby tissues around the colon or rectum.
  • Stage IIB: Cancer has spread beyond the colon wall into nearby organs and/or through the peritoneum.

Stage II colon cancer is sometimes called Dukes' B colon cancer.

Stage III

Stage III colon cancer is divided into stage IIIA, stage IIIB, and stage IIIC.

  • Stage IIIA: Cancer has spread from the innermost tissue layer of the colon wall to the middle layers and has spread to as many as 3 lymph nodes.
  • Stage IIIB: Cancer has spread to as many as 3 nearby lymph nodes and has spread:
    • beyond the middle tissue layers of the colon wall; or
    • to nearby tissues around the colon or rectum; or
    • beyond the colon wall into nearby organs and/or through the peritoneum.
  • Stage IIIC: Cancer has spread to 4 or more nearby lymph nodes and has spread:
    • to or beyond the middle tissue layers of the colon wall; or
    • to nearby tissues around the colon or rectum; or
    • to nearby organs and/or through the peritoneum.

Stage III colon cancer is sometimes called Dukes' C colon cancer.

Stage IV

In stage IV, cancer may have spread to nearby lymph nodes and has spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver or lungs. Stage IV colon cancer is sometimes called Dukes’ D colon cancer.

 Video  (Dr. Won Jo, Physician at Saddleback Memorial Hospital, discusses Colorectal cancer.)

Recurrent Colon Cancer 

Recurrent colon cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the colon or in other parts of the body, such as the liver, lungs, or both.

Treatment Option Overview

Key Points for This Section

There are different types of treatment for patients with colon cancer.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with colon cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. Before starting treatment, patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country.  Choosing the most appropriate cancer treatment is a decision that ideally involves the patient, family, and health care team.

Three types of standard treatment are used. These include the following:

Surgery

Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is the most common treatment for all stages of colon cancer. A doctor may remove the cancer using one of the following types of surgery:

  • Local excision: If the cancer is found at a very early stage, the doctor may remove it without cutting through the abdominal wall. Instead, the doctor may put a tube through the rectum into the colon and cut the cancer out. This is called a local excision. If the cancer is found in a polyp (a small bulging piece of tissue), the operation is called a polypectomy.
  • Resection: If the cancer is larger, the doctor will perform a partial colectomy (removing the cancer and a small amount of healthy tissue around it). The doctor may then perform an anastomosis (sewing the healthy parts of the colon together). The doctor will also usually remove lymph nodes near the colon and examine them under a microscope to see whether they contain cancer.

    Three panel drawing showing colon cancer surgery with anastomosis; first panel shows area of colon with cancer, middle panel shows cancer and nearby tissue removed, last panel shows cut ends of colon joined.
    Colon cancer surgery with anastomosis. Part of the colon containing the cancer and nearby healthy tissue is removed, and then the cut ends of the colon are joined.

  • Resection and colostomy: If the doctor is not able to sew the 2 ends of the colon back together, a stoma (an opening) is made on the outside of the body for waste to pass through. This procedure is called a colostomy. A bag is placed around the stoma to collect the waste. Sometimes the colostomy is needed only until the lower colon has healed, and then it can be reversed. If the doctor needs to remove the entire lower colon, however, the colostomy may be permanent.

    Three panel drawing showing colon cancer surgery with colostomy; first panel shows area of colon with cancer, middle panel shows cancer and nearby tissue removed and stoma created, last panel shows a colostomy bag attached to the stoma.
    Colon cancer surgery with colostomy. Part of the colon containing the cancer and nearby healthy tissue is removed, a stoma is created, and a colostomy bag is attached to the stoma.

  • Radiofrequency ablation: The use of a special probe with tiny electrodes that kill cancer cells. Sometimes the probe is inserted directly through the skin and only local anesthesia is needed. In other cases, the probe is inserted through an incision in the abdomen. This is done in the hospital with general anesthesia.
  • Cryosurgery: A treatment that uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue, such as carcinoma in situ. This type of treatment is also called cryotherapy.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the operation, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to increase the chances of a cure, is called adjuvant therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).

Chemoembolization of the hepatic artery may be used to treat cancer that has spread to the liver. This involves blocking the hepatic artery (the main artery that supplies blood to the liver) and injecting anticancer drugs between the blockage and the liver. The liver’s arteries then deliver the drugs throughout the liver. Only a small amount of the drug reaches other parts of the body. The blockage may be temporary or permanent, depending on what is used to block the artery. The liver continues to receive some blood from the hepatic portal vein, which carries blood from the stomach and intestine.

The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Other types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials. These include the following:

Biologic therapy

Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied.

Follow-up exams may help find recurrent colon cancer earlier.

After treatment, a blood test to measure carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA; a substance in the blood that may be increased when colon cancer is present) may be done along with other tests to see if the cancer has come back.

Treatment Options for Colon Cancer

Stage 0 Colon Cancer (Carcinoma in Situ)
Stage I Colon Cancer
Stage II Colon Cancer
Stage III Colon Cancer
Stage IV and Recurrent Colon Cancer



Stage 0 Colon Cancer (Carcinoma in Situ)

Treatment of stage 0 (carcinoma in situ) may include the following types of surgery:

  • Local excision or simple polypectomy.
  • Resection/anastomosis. This is done when the cancerous tissue is too large to remove by local excision.

Stage I Colon Cancer

Treatment of stage I colon cancer is usually resection/anastomosis.

Stage II Colon Cancer

Treatment of stage II colon cancer may include the following:

  • Resection/anastomosis.
  • Clinical trials of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or biologic therapy after surgery.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied.

Stage III Colon Cancer

Treatment of stage III colon cancer may include the following:

  • Resection/anastomosis with chemotherapy.
  • Clinical trials of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and/or biologic therapy after surgery.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied.

Stage IV and Recurrent Colon Cancer

 Video (Dr. Jeffery Myerhardt from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute discusses diet and colon cancer reoccurrence).

Treatment of stage IV and recurrent colon cancer may include the following:

  • Resection/anastomosis (surgery to remove the cancer or bypass the tumor and join the cut ends of the colon).
  • Surgery to remove parts of other organs, such as the liver, lungs, and ovaries, where the cancer may have recurred or spread.
  • Radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be offered to some patients as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
  • Clinical trials of chemotherapy and/or biologic therapy.

Treatment of locally recurrent colon cancer may be local excision.

Special treatments of cancer that has spread to or recurred in the liver may include the following:

  • Radiofrequency ablation or cryosurgery.
  • Clinical trials of hepatic chemoembolization with radiation therapy.

Patients whose colon cancer spreads or recurs after initial treatment with chemotherapy may be offered further chemotherapy with a different drug or combination of drugs.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied.

 Video  Anne Edwards, a three time survivor of colon cancer.

 

Source: National Cancer Institute