This topic will tell you about the early testing, diagnosis, and treatment of colorectal cancer. If you want to learn about colorectal cancer that has come back or has spread, see the topic Colorectal Cancer, Metastatic or Recurrent. If you want to learn about anal cancer, see the topic Anal Cancer.
Colorectal cancer means that cells that aren't normal are growing in your colon or rectum. These cells grow together and form polyps. Over time, some polyps can turn into cancer.
This cancer is also called colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where the cancer is. It is the third most common cancer in the United States. And it occurs most often in people older than 50.
The exact cause of colorectal cancer is not known. Most cases begin as small growths, or polyps, inside the colon or rectum.
Colon polyps are very common. If they are found early, usually through routine screening tests, they can be removed before they turn into cancer.
Colorectal cancer usually doesn't cause symptoms until after it has started to spread. See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:
If your doctor thinks that you may have this cancer, you will need a test, called a colonoscopy (say "koh-luh-NAW-skuh-pee"), that lets the doctor see the inside of your entire colon and rectum. During this test, your doctor will remove polyps or take tissue samples from any areas that don't look normal. The tissue will be looked at under a microscope to see if it contains cancer.
Sometimes another test, such as a sigmoidoscopy (say "sig-moy-DAW-skuh-pee"), is used to diagnose colorectal cancer.
Screening tests can find or prevent many cases of colon and rectal cancer. They look for a certain disease or condition before any symptoms appear. Experts recommend routine colon cancer testing for everyone age 50 and older who has a normal risk for colon cancer. Your doctor may recommend getting tested more often or at a younger age if you have a higher risk. Talk to your doctor about when you should be tested.
The most common screening tests are:
Learning about colorectal cancer:
Living with colorectal cancer:
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Most cases begin as polyps, which are small growths inside the colon or rectum. Colon polyps are very common. Some polyps can turn into cancer. But doctors can't tell ahead of time which polyps will turn into cancer. This is why people age 50 and older need regular tests to find out if they have any polyps and then have them removed.
Some people who are younger than 50 need regular tests if their medical history puts them at increased risk for colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer in its early stages usually doesn't cause any symptoms. Symptoms occur later, when the cancer may be harder to treat. The most common symptoms include:
Cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the body. These extra cells grow together and form masses, called tumors. In colorectal cancer, these growths usually start as polyps in the large intestine (colon or rectum). If colon polyps aren't found and removed, they may turn into cancer.
Cancers in the colon or rectum usually grow very slowly. It takes most of them years to become large enough to cause symptoms. If the cancer is allowed to grow, over time it will invade and destroy nearby tissues and then spread farther. Colorectal cancer spreads first to nearby lymph nodes. From there it may spread to other parts of the body, usually the liver. It may also spread to the lungs, and less often, to other organs in the body.
The long-term outcome, or prognosis, for colorectal cancer depends on how much the cancer has grown and spread. Experts talk about prognosis in terms of "5-year survival rates." This means the percentage of people who are still alive 5 years or longer after their cancer was found. It is important to remember that these are only averages. Everyone's case is different. And these numbers don't necessarily show what will happen to you. The estimated 5-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is:1
These numbers are taken from reports that were done at least 5 years ago, before newer treatments were available. So the actual chances of your survival are likely to be higher than these numbers.
A risk factor for colorectal cancer is something that increases your chance of getting this cancer. Having one or more of these risk factors can make it more likely that you will get colorectal cancer. But it doesn't mean that you will definitely get it. And many people who get colorectal cancer don't have any of these risk factors.
Everyone who is older than 50 has a risk of getting colorectal cancer. And the older you are, the greater the risk. Most cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed in people older than 50.
African Americans are at greater risk of getting colorectal cancer (and dying from it) than non-Hispanic whites. And non-Hispanic white people have a higher risk than other major racial or ethnic groups, such as Hispanics, Asians, and Pacific Islanders.2
Ashkenazi Jews (Jewish people whose ancestors came from Eastern Europe) who have inherited certain genes are also at a higher risk for getting colorectal cancer.3
You are more likely to get colorectal cancer if one of your parents, brothers, sisters, or children has had the disease. This is considered a strong family history. Your risk depends on how old your family member was when he or she was diagnosed and on how many members of your family have had the disease.
You have a very strong family history if all of the following are true:
Some common gene changes increase the chance of colorectal cancer. These changes are familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and Lynch syndrome, also called hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC). Many people with these changed genes will get colorectal cancer if they aren't carefully watched. Genetic testing can tell you if you carry a changed, or mutated, gene that can cause FAP or HNPCC.
Your chances of getting colorectal cancer are higher if you have had:
Lifestyle changes, such as exercise and eating well, help reduce your risk. To learn more, see Prevention.
Call your doctor if you have any symptoms of colorectal cancer, such as:
Because colorectal cancer often doesn't cause any symptoms, talk with your doctor about screening tests. Screening helps doctors find a certain disease or condition before any symptoms appear.
Health professionals who can evaluate your symptoms of colorectal cancer include:
If your doctor thinks you may have colorectal cancer, he or she may advise you to see a general surgeon or a colorectal surgeon. Colorectal cancer is treated by surgeons, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
If your doctor thinks you may have colorectal cancer, he or she will ask you questions about your medical history and give you a physical exam. Other tests may include:
For people who have an increased risk for colorectal cancer, regular colonoscopy is the recommended screening test. It allows your doctor to remove polyps (polypectomy) and take tissue samples at the same time.
When you are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, your doctor may order other tests to find out if the cancer has spread. These tests include:
Routine screening can reduce deaths from colorectal cancer. Some screening tests find and remove polyps before they can turn into cancer. Other screening tests look for early signs of cancer. Colorectal cancer has a much better chance of being successfully treated when it is found early.
Stool tests look for signs of cancer. If used as recommended, these tests may find cancer early, when treatment works better. Sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy are tests that find and remove polyps to stop them from turning into cancer. Virtual colonoscopy finds polyps. With stool tests and virtual colonoscopy, if there are abnormal findings, you will need to have a colonoscopy to remove any polyps.
Talk to your doctor about which test is right for you. People with a higher risk for colorectal cancer, such as African Americans and people with a strong family history of colon cancer, may need to start routine testing before age 50 and have it more often.
You and your doctor will work together to decide what your treatment should be. You will consider your own preferences and your general health. But the stage of your cancer is the most important tool for choosing your treatment. Staging is a way for your doctor to tell how far, if at all, your cancer has spread.
Surgery is almost always used to remove colorectal cancer. Sometimes a simple operation can be done during a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy to remove small polyps and a small amount of tissue around them. But in most cases, a major operation is needed to remove the cancer and part of the colon or rectum around it. If cancer has spread to another part of your body, such as the liver, you may need more far-reaching surgery.
Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells throughout the body. Several medicines are often used together.
Radiation therapy uses X-rays to destroy cancer cells. This is used for some types of cancer in the rectum. Radiation therapy is often combined with surgery or chemotherapy. To learn more, see Other Treatment.
Cancers that have not spread beyond the colon or rectum may need only surgery. If the cancer has spread, you may need radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or both.
Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation can have serious side effects. But your medical team will help you manage the side effects of your treatment. This may include medicines for pain after surgery or medicines to control nausea and vomiting if you have chemotherapy.
Talk with your doctor and medical team about your side effects. Some side effects, such as pain or tingling in your hands or feet that gets worse (peripheral neuropathy), may be a sign that your medicines need to be changed.
For tips on how to manage side effects at home, see Home Treatment.
After you have had colorectal cancer, your chances of having it again go up. It's important to keep seeing your doctor and be tested regularly to help find any returning cancer or new polyps early. After your treatment, you will need regular checkups by a family doctor, general practitioner, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, or surgeon, depending on your case.
Colorectal cancer comes back in about half of people who have surgery to remove the cancer.5 The cancer may be more likely to come back after surgery if it was not found in an early stage. Cancer that has spread or comes back is harder to treat, but sometimes treatments are successful. For more information, see the topic Colorectal Cancer, Metastatic and Recurrent.
Finding out that you have cancer can change your life. You may feel like your world has turned upside down and you have lost all control. Talking with family, friends, or a counselor can really help. Ask your doctor about support groups. Or call the American Cancer Society (1-800-227-2345) or visit its website at www.cancer.org.
To learn more about colon and rectal cancer, go to the website of the National Cancer Institute at www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/colon-and-rectal.
Some tests can prevent colorectal cancer. Screening tests look for a certain disease or condition before any symptoms appear. Experts recommend routine colon cancer testing for everyone age 50 and older who has a normal risk for colon cancer. Your doctor may recommend earlier or more frequent testing if you have a higher risk for colon cancer. Talk to your doctor about when you should be tested.
Fewer than half of people who are older than 50 are screened for colorectal cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, if everyone were tested, tens of thousands of lives could be saved each year.
The following guidelines are for people who do not have an increased risk for colorectal cancer.
Stool test,* such as the fecal occult blood test (FOBT), fecal immunochemical test (FIT), or stool DNA test (sDNA)
Every year for the FOBT and FIT
Every 5 years for sDNA
|Every 5 years|
|Every 10 years|
Computed tomographic colonography (CTC), also called a virtual colonoscopy
Every 5 years
*Others recommend combining a stool test with a sigmoidoscopy.
For more information, see:
Here are other things you can do to help prevent colorectal cancer:
If you have a very strong family history of colon cancer, you may want to talk to your doctor or a genetic counselor about having a blood test to look for changed genes. Genetic testing can tell you if you carry a changed, or mutated, gene that can cause colon cancer. Having certain genes greatly increases your risk of colon cancer. But most cases of colon cancer aren't caused by changed genes.
During treatment for colorectal cancer, you can do things at home to help manage your side effects and symptoms. If your doctor has given you instructions or medicines to treat these problems, be sure to also use them.
In general, healthy habits such as eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep and exercise may help control your symptoms.
You can try home treatments:
Other problems that can be treated at home include:
Having cancer can be very stressful. Finding new ways of coping with your stress may improve your overall quality of life.
These ideas may help:
Your feelings about your body may change after treatment. Dealing with your body image may involve talking openly with your partner about your worries and discussing your feelings with a doctor.
Having cancer can change your life in many ways. For help with managing these changes, see the topic Getting Support When You Have Cancer.
For more information about learning how to live with cancer, read "Taking Time: Support for People With Cancer" from the National Cancer Institute. This booklet is available online at www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/takingtime.
Chemotherapy is the use of medicines to control the cancer's growth or relieve symptoms. Often the medicines are given through a needle in your vein. Your blood vessels carry the medicines through your body. Sometimes the medicines are available as pills. And sometimes they are given as a shot, or injection.
Several medicines are used to treat colorectal cancer. There are also several medicines available for treating side effects.
A combination of drugs often works better than a single drug in treating colorectal cancer. The most commonly used drugs are:
Hair loss can be a common side effect with some types of chemotherapy. But hair loss usually isn't a side effect of these drugs.
Your doctor may prescribe medicines that can help relieve side effects of chemotherapy. These side effects can include mouth sores, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to control nausea and vomiting.
There also are things you can do at home to manage side effects. See Home Treatment for more information.
Chemotherapy and radiation may be combined to treat some types of colorectal cancer. Radiation or chemotherapy given before or after surgery can destroy microscopic areas of cancer to increase the chances of a cure.
Surgery to remove cancer is almost always the main treatment for colorectal cancer. The type of surgery depends on the size and location of your cancer.
Side effects are common after surgery. You may be able to reduce the severity of your side effects at home. See Home Treatment for more information.
Your doctor may suggest radiation therapy or chemotherapy if he or she thinks the cancer may come back (recur). If the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, you may need chemotherapy after your surgery. Or if your surgery shows that the cancer has spread outside your colon or rectum, you may need radiation therapy.
Sometimes after a bowel resection, the two ends of the colon or rectum can't be sewn back together. When this happens, a colostomy is performed. But most people don't need a colostomy.
Radiation therapy uses X-rays to destroy colorectal cancer cells and shrink tumors. It is often used to treat rectal cancer, usually combined with surgery. It is used less often to treat colon cancer. It may also be combined with chemotherapy.
Radiation may be given:
Compared to surgery alone, radiation given before surgery may reduce the risk that rectal cancer will return, and it may help you live longer.5
People sometimes use complementary therapies along with medical treatment to help relieve symptoms and side effects of cancer treatments. Some of the complementary therapies that may be helpful include:
Mind-body treatments like the ones listed above may help you feel better. They can make it easier to cope with cancer treatments. They also may reduce chronic low back pain, joint pain, headaches, and pain from treatments.
Before you try a complementary therapy, talk to your doctor about the possible value and side effects. Let your doctor know if you are already using any of these therapies. Complementary therapies are not meant to take the place of standard medical treatment. But they may improve your quality of life and help you deal with the stress and side effects of cancer treatment.
You may be interested in taking part in research studies called clinical trials. Clinical trials are based on the most up-to-date information. They are designed to find better ways to treat people who have cancer. People who don't want standard treatments or aren't cured by standard treatments may want to take part in clinical trials. These are ongoing in most parts of the United States and in some other countries around the world for all stages of colorectal cancer.
|American Cancer Society (ACS)|
The American Cancer Society (ACS) conducts educational programs and offers many services to people with cancer and to their families. Staff at the toll-free number have information about services and activities in local areas and can provide referrals to local ACS divisions.
|American College of Gastroenterology|
|6400 Goldsboro Road|
|Bethesda, MD 20817|
The American College of Gastroenterology is an organization of digestive disease specialists. The website contains information about common gastrointestinal problems.
|American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons|
|85 West Algonquin Road|
|Arlington Heights, IL 60005|
The American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons is the leading professional society representing more than 1,000 board-certified colon and rectal surgeons and other surgeons dedicated to treating people with diseases and disorders affecting the colon, rectum, and anus.
Cancer.Net is the information website of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) for people living with cancer and for those who care for them. ASCO is the world's leading professional organization representing physicians of all oncology subspecialties. Cancer.Net provides current oncologist-approved information on living with cancer.
|National Cancer Institute (NCI)|
|6116 Executive Boulevard|
|Bethesda, MD 20892-8322|
|Web Address:||www.cancer.gov (or https://livehelp.cancer.gov/app/chat/chat_launch for live help online)|
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is a U.S. government agency that provides up-to-date information about the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer. NCI also offers supportive care to people who have cancer and to their families. NCI information is also available to doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. NCI provides the latest information about clinical trials. The Cancer Information Service, a service of NCI, has trained staff members available to answer questions and send free publications. Spanish-speaking staff members are also available.
|National Institutes of Health: Health Information|
|9000 Rockville Pike|
|Bethesda, MD 20892|
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducts and supports medical research to improve people's health and save lives. NIH provides access to health and wellness information, free newsletters, current research, health databases, fact sheets, and many other resources.
- American Cancer Society (2012). Cancer Facts and Figures 2012. Atlanta: American Cancer Society. Available online.
- American Cancer Society (2011). Colorectal Cancer Facts and Figures 2011–2013. Atlanta: American Cancer Society. Available online:
- Libutti SK, et al. (2011). Cancer of the colon. In VT DeVita Jr. et al., eds., DeVita, Hellman and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology, 9th ed., pp. 1084–1126. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- Winawer S, et al. (2003). Colorectal cancer screening and surveillance: Clinical guidelines and rationale—Update based on new evidence. Gastroenterology, 124(2): 544–560.
- Lewis C (2007). Colorectal cancer screening, search date November 2006. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
Other Works Consulted
- Cherny NJ (2011). Diarrhea and constipation. In VT DeVita Jr. et al., eds., DeVita, Hellman and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology, 9th ed., pp. 2329–2336. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- National Cancer Institute (2010). Colon Cancer PDQ: Treatment—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/colon/HealthProfessional.
- National Cancer Institute (2011). Colon Cancer PDQ: Treatment—Patient Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/colon/Patient.
- National Cancer Institute (2011). Rectal Cancer PDQ: Treatment—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/rectal/HealthProfessional/allpages.
- National Cancer Institute (2012). Genetics of Colorectal Cancer PDQ—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/genetics/colorectal/healthprofessional/allpages.
- National Cancer Institute (2012). Rectal Cancer Treatment (PDQ)—Patient Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/rectal/Patient.
- National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2012). Rectal cancer. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology, version 3. Available online: http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/f_guidelines.asp#site.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Kenneth Bark, MD - Surgery, Colon and Rectal|
|Last Revised||January 29, 2013|
Last Revised: January 29, 2013
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