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What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is the uncontrolled growth of malignant cells in the rectum or colon (large intestine). It is the second most common cancer site (following lung) in the U.S.. It may involve anywhere along the large intestine with approximately 70% of all cancers occurring below the midpoint of the descending colon (descending 10%; sigmoid 10%, rectum 50%) and the remainder in the cecum, ascending colon, transverse colon, and upper descending colon (29.5%). It most often affects adults over 40.

What are the signs of colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer frequently presents with no symptoms at all in the early stages. If it presents at the later stages, the following symptoms may be present:

  • Bloody or black, tan stools.
  • Cramping abdominal pain.
  • Feeling of fullness.
  • Change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrow caliber stools.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Pain in the rectum.
  • Anemia.
  • Loss of bowel control (sometimes).
  • What causes colorectal cancer?

    The cause of colorectal cancer is mostly unknown although both genetic and environmental factors may contribute.

    Risk increases with Adults over 50:

  • Ulcerative colitis and some other chronic disorders of the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Improper diet that is low in fiber and high in fat.
  • Previous rectal polyps.
  • Family history of rectal polyps or colorectal cancer.
  • Preventative measures

    • Eat a diet that is high in fiber and low in fat.
    • If you fall into a high-risk group, have annual physical examinations and request rectal and colon exams.
    • If you have any of the risk factors listed above, buy from your pharmacy a detection kit for blood in the stool. Check for bleeding every 2 months. Simple-to-use home test kits are available.

    Expected outcome

    Overall outlook is variable depending on the stage the disease has reached when it is discovered. More than 50% of patients survive 5 years after surgery. The earlier the tumor is detected, the greater the chances for full recovery following treatment.

    Possible complications

    Spread to other body parts and death. Complications of surgery (infection, pneumonia, abscess).

    How is colorectal cancer treated?

    When you see a specialist, you will have an evaluation done which would include:

    • Diagnostic tests may include laboratory blood studies
    • Sigmoidoscopy (method of examining the rectum and lower part of the colon with an optical instrument with a lighted tip)
    • Colonoscopy (method of diagnosing diseases of the colon by visual examination of the inside of the colon through a flexible colonoscope, a fiber-optic instrument with a lighted tip)
    • X-rays of the colon (barium enema) ct scan
    • Ultrasound.


    Surgery to remove the tumor. It is sometimes necessary to divert the bowel through a surgical opening in the abdomen (colostomy). If you have a colostomy, you will require special instructions for care of the opening.

    Additional treatments

    Sometimes, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy may be necessary to treat the colorectal cancer before or after surgery. This decision is made with the help of Oncology and Radiation specialists.

    When should I see/notify the specialist?

    If you or a family member has symptoms of cancer of the large intestine, especially rectal bleeding or a significant change in bowel habits that lasts longer than 7 days. Also if symptoms of anemia develop (fatigue, paleness and rapid heartbeat).