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Colon Cancer Facts

What is colon cancer?

Colon cancer is cancer in parts of the body including the colon, rectum, appendix and anus. It is also called "colorectal" cancer. The colon is a muscular tube about five feet long that is responsible for getting water and nutrients from food. Cancer happens when the cells in your body grow too fast or too much, creating a tumor which spreads to other tissues in the area. Most colon cancers develop from polyps, which are lumps of tissue in the bowel that could become cancer if not removed.

Image: photo of a poster urging adults over 50 to get testedfor colon cancer.

Why is it so serious?

  • Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in Delaware.
  • Colon cancer kills about 170 Delawareans every year.
  • Rates of death due to colon cancer in Delaware are 36% higher among African Americans than among other Delawareans.

Is it curable?

Colon cancer can be stopped! With screening tests, doctors can detect and even remove polyps and early cancers — that's why it is so important to get tested.

Is it preventable?

A Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention report estimated that close to half of all colon cancers in the United States could be prevented by healthy lifestyle habits and regular screenings. What can you do to help prevent colorectal cancer?

  • Don't smoke.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a healthy diet, low in animal or saturated fats, and high in fruits, vegetables (especially green vegetables), and fiber.
  • Get regular, moderate physical activity — like walking — at least five days a week.
  • Know your family history.
  • If you're 50 or older, or have a family history or symptoms of colorectal problems, get regular screening as recommended by your doctor or health care provider.

Most colon cancers begin as polyps, which are pre-cancerous lumps growing on the lining of colon wall. Regular screening can detect and remove these polyps before they become cancerous.

Who gets colon cancer?

Colon cancer affects men and women of all ages and races, but people 50 years old or older are more likely to get colon cancer.

What are the risk factors?

  • Age — Most cases are in people age 50 and older; but you can get colon cancer at any age.
  • Racial-ethnic background — Although colon cancer affects everyone, minorities are more likely to die from colon cancer, because they are less likely to be tested and receive early treatment.
  • Family history — If members of your family have had colon cancer, there's a greater chance that you may get it.
  • Poor diet and physical inactivity — If your diet is high in fat, it can increase your risk for colon cancer. Also people who are not active have a higher risk.
  • Smoking and alcohol — Studies show that smokers are 30% to 40% more likely than nonsmokers to die of colon cancer.  Those who drink alcohol heavily are also at greater risk.

Are there any symptoms?

Most of the time, there are no visible symptoms. That's another reason why it is so important to get tested. However, there are a few symptoms that are noticeable:

  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Frequent diarrhea or constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Blood in the stool
  • Abdominal discomfort (gas, bloating, cramps)
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Constant tiredness

What is the test?

A colonoscopy is the preferred test to detect colon cancer. A colonoscopy is a way to see if the tissue in your colon is normal or if there are any signs of cancer. Doctors use a colonoscope — a long, flexible, narrow tube with a light and a camera at the end — to check the lining of your bowel. You will receive anesthesia, so you won't feel anything. Biopsies (small tissue samples) may be taken while you're undergoing the test. Polyps (lumps of tissue in your bowel) may be removed during the test. Polyps can become cancer if they are not removed.

How is the test done?

The test is a lot easier than you may think. It is not painful and takes about an hour. Here's what to expect:

  • You'll be asked to fast from and all liquids other than water for 24 hours before the test.
  • Before the test, you'll receive a sedative to relax you.
  • After the test, which lasts about an hour, you'll rest for another hour.
  • You will need someone to drive you home.
  • You'll be given instructions about eating — keep your diet light for the rest of that day.
  • If you take medications, you'll be told when you can begin taking them again.

Don't wait to get tested!