What is colorectal cancer?

According to the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada, colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in this country. Based on recent estimates, it is expected that 22,000 people will be diagnosed with this disease and 9,100 people will die from it each year.

These numbers seem bleak, but they do not tell the full story. Colorectal cancer (CRC) is a highly treatable form of cancer. In fact, if detected early, there is a 90% chance it can be cured. This kind of information is a warning bell for everyone, but it is particularly important for people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

What is colorectal cancer?

Cancer is an abnormal growth (tumor) of cells which reproduces uncontrollably, invading other tissues and organs.  In colorectal cancer, the tumor develops from the cells lining the large bowel (or colon) and rectum. The tumors usually develop over a period of years, generally starting out as non-cancerous (benign) growths called polyps. As time passes and if undetected, some polyps undergo a change and become cancerous. Once the polyps have become tumors, they continue to grow and may even spread to other parts of the body (metastasize), invading other organs such as the liver or lungs.

If polyps are detected early and removed, colorectal cancer may be prevented.

What are the symptoms?

In the early stages of colorectal cancer, there are not usually any symptoms. Later on, there could be symptoms such as:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Change in the frequency of bowel movements
  • Stools that are narrower than usual
  • Alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation
  • Feelings of abdominal bloating, fullness or cramps
  • Vomiting, fatigue, weight loss
  • Constant fatigue

Who is at risk for Colorectal Cancer?

CRC can affect anyone in the general population, not just those with IBD. As we age, the risk of developing CRC increases; in fact, the disease is most common in people over the age of 50.

Aside from aging, there are other factors that contribute to an increased risk of developing CRC. They include:

  • Personal history of having colorectal adenomas (a specific type of polyp in the colon or rectum that is considered to be particularly likely to develop into cancer)
  • Personal history of any other kind of cancer
  • Family history of colorectal cancer (parents, siblings, children)
  • Genetic syndromes such as Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) and Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colon Cancer (HNPCC) and Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome
  • Ethnic backgrounds that are African American and Ashkenazi Jew
  • A diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease

It is recommended to have a colonoscopy ever two years once you turn 50 and to continue until you turn 74. If you show any of the above symptoms, make sure you see a doctor right away.