Colon cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer people experience. Although it’s the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, no one likes to talk about it. So what is colon cancer? Is it different from colorectal cancer? Understanding the disease is important both for those who have been diagnosed with it as well as those trying to prevent it.

Colon Cancer vs. Colorectal Cancer

Colon cancer is a malignancy that begins in the colon or large intestine. The large intestine is a long tube-like organ near the end of the digestive system. After food passes through the stomach and small intestine, the colon is responsible for removing fluid and some nutrients from the food you eat. The colon then pushes the remaining solid waste into the rectum where it can be expelled from the body.

Colorectal cancer is another commonly used term that includes not only cancers of the colon, but also cancers that form in the rectum. The rectum is the last part of the large intestine where stool, the body’s waste product, is expelled through the anus.

How Does Colon Cancer Start?

Most colon cancers begin as benign polyps. These are either flat or knob-like growths on the lining of the large intestine. Occasionally, the growths produce symptoms such as bleeding, constipation or blood in the stool. But often, the cells produce no symptoms at all, so people may not know that they have them.

The best way to detect the presence of polyps is with a procedure called a colonoscopy, which is performed in a physician’s office.

While some polyps remain benign (non-cancerous), some may become malignant (cancerous) over time. For this reason, when a physician finds one or more polyps during a colonoscopy, they are generally removed during the procedure.

So how do you prevent polyps from forming in the first place? A family history of polyps or of colon cancer may increase your chances of getting them. People who are over the age of 50 also have a higher risk of forming polyps in the colon. But there are also lifestyle factors that play a role in the development of these growths. Obesity is a risk factor for the development of polyps. Smokers, people who consume a high fat diet, and those who consume alcohol are also at higher risk.

Who Gets Colon Cancer?

Anyone can develop colon cancer. Some people are at higher risk. If you have a family history of colon cancer, physicians generally recommend that you get screened at an earlier age because your risk of getting the disease may be higher. For those who have no family history of the disease, recommended screenings generally begin at age 50 because this is when the risk of getting colon cancer begins to increase.

However, even if you are under the age of 50 and have no family history of colon cancer, if you experience symptoms including abdominal pain, blood in the stool, narrowing stools, or a change in bowel habits, you should speak to your health care provider about getting screened. Be sure to provide as much information as possible, including when the pain or discomfort started and the severity and/or frequency of symptoms.

How To Prevent Colon Cancer

Research shows that a high fat diet is a risk factor for colon cancer. Some studies have also suggested that a diet high in fiber and a lifestyle that includes moderate exercise are helpful in preventing the disease. Staying aware of symptoms  and getting recommended screenings are key factors in prevention of the disease.

After speaking to family members and gathering a complete health history, talk to your primary care provider about ways to improve your diet and lifestyle to prevent colon cancer and about scheduling preventative screenings when necessary.

Information on these pages is provided for educational purposes only. Consult your own physician before making any medical decisions.