Colorectal cancer is an abnormal growth in the colon or rectum (bowel). The colon is the longest part of the large intestine and the rectum is the passageway connecting the colon to the anus. Most colorectal cancers begin as a polyp (a benign or non-cancerous growth on the lining of the colon or rectum) that develops into an abnormal (cancerous) growth. Screening for polyps can detect colorectal cancer early.
The causes of colorectal cancer are not known, but you may be at risk if you:
- Are older than 50 years old
- Have colorectal polyps
- Have family members with colorectal cancer
- Have had a previous cancer such as colorectal cancer, and, in women, cancer of the ovary, uterus or breast
- Have ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease (inflammation of the colon)
- Have a diet high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables
Check with a doctor if you have these symptoms of colorectal cancer:
- Change in bowel habits (diarrhoea or constipation)
- Feeling nauseous or vomiting
- Feeling that your bowel does not empty completely
- Feeling very tired all the time
- Finding blood (either bright red or very dark) in your stools
- Finding your stools are narrower than usual
- Frequently having gas pains or cramps, or feeling full or bloated
- Losing weight with no known reason
Colorectal polyps and cancers can be detected by the presence of blood that bleed into the colon. The amount of bleeding can be virtually invisible to the naked eye. The faecal immunochemical test (FIT) is a preliminary test that detects the presence of small amounts of blood in faeces. This test is available in a simple kit that can be carried out in the comfort of your own home.
Colonoscopy is one of the most common screening procedures for the detection of colorectal cancer. A flexible lighted scope is inserted through the anus to allow the doctor to see the internal walls of the rectum and colon. During this procedure, tissue samples can be collected for further testing, and existing polyps can be removed before they turn cancerous.
As polyps can take 10 to 15 years before they turn cancerous, studies have recommended that men and women above the age of 50 undergo a colonoscopy once every 10 years, or when symptoms occur.
The most common treatment for colorectal cancer is surgery to remove the tumour. Surgery to remove colorectal cancer can take either the form of:
- Minimally invasive surgery, done by laparoscopy (keyhole surgery); or
- Open surgery to remove the cancer and some of the nearby colon tissues and lymph nodes (glands) whenever necessary
Other treatments that may be given before or after surgery include:
- Chemotherapy to destroy cancer cells
- Radiation therapy (high-energy x-rays) in designated area
- Targeted therapy to destroy or block the growth of cancer cells
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