Colorectal cancer, also called colon cancer or large bowel cancer, includes cancerous growths in the colon, rectum and appendix. It is the third most common form of cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the Western world. Colorectal cancer causes 655,000 deaths worldwide per year, including about 16,000 in the UK, where it is the second most common site (after lung) to cause cancer death.[1] Many colorectal cancers are thought to arise from adenomatous polyps in the colon. These mushroom-like growths are usually benign, but some may develop into cancer over time.

Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer

Many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. When symptoms appear, they’ll likely vary, depending on the cancer’s size and location in your large intestine.

Other symptoms include the following:

Abdominal discomfort (e.g., pain, bloating, cramping, fullness)

Change in bowel habits

Constipation or diarrhea

Narrow stools

Nausea and vomiting

Most of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by conditions other than colorectal cancer, such as infection, hemorrhoids, or inflammatory bowel disease. Still, if you have any of these problems, it’s important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

What Are the Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer?

A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, exposing skin to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer, and smoking is a risk factor for cancers of the lungs larynx, mouth, throat, esophagus, kidneys, bladder, colon and several other organs.


Genetic disorders such as familial polyposis syndromes and hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer syndrome (HNPCC)

Inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s colitis, granulomatous colitis)

Personal history of intestinal polyps or colorectal cancer


Research has indicated that alcohol increases colorectal cancer risk. Research has also shown that it lowers it, or that it has no effect at all. So which is right? All of it may be. The key appears to be what kind of alcohol you’re drinking.

Treatment of Colorectal Cancer

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Surgery is the treatment of choice for colorectal cancer. Treatment depends on the stage of the disease and the overall health of the patient. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be used as adjuvant treatment (i.e., in addition to surgery).

Given before surgery, radiation may reduce tumor size. This can improve the chances that the tumor will be removed successfully.

Laparoscopic surgery — Also called “keyhole surgery,” this innovative approach is being used for some patients with colon cancer. During the procedure, a lighted tube, called a laparoscope, and special instruments are placed inside the body through a few small incisions in the abdomen, rather than one large one. The surgeon is then guided by the laparoscope, which transmits a picture of the intestinal organs on a video monitor and then removes diseased areas of the intestines. Laparoscopic surgery for colon cancer offers an alternative and many advantages to standard surgery, including less pain and a shorter recovery period.

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