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Colon cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is a type of cancer that develops in the large intestine (colon). The colon is the last part of the human digestive tract.
On average, 1 in 25 people is at risk for colon cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women.¹ ²
Colon cancer cells are detected in about half of average-risk individuals aged 50 and above undergoing colonoscopy (a procedure to check inside the colon for cancer), with a higher prevalence in men than women.
This includes people with colorectal cancer, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, polyps (benign growths in the colon or rectum), a family history of the disease, a fatty diet, or tobacco use.
Below are some key statistics for colorectal cancer to put things into perspective:
The estimated number of new colorectal cancer cases and deaths for men in 2022 is 80,690 (54,040 for colon cancer and 26,650 for rectal cancer).³
The survival rate for colorectal cancer is 64% at five years after diagnosis and 58% at ten years.
9 in 10 new colorectal cancer cases are among women and men aged 50 and above.⁴
Colorectal cancer deaths are 35% higher for African Americans. Similarly, African Americans have the highest incidence and mortality rates.⁵
According to a recent JAMA publication, colorectal cancer is estimated to become the leading cause of cancer-related deaths by 2030 for the age group 20–49.⁶
In 2020, colorectal cancer accounted for 9.4% of cancer deaths.⁷
Colon cancer (colorectal cancer) is the third-most common cancer diagnosed in the US. The estimated numbers of colorectal cancer diagnoses in the US in 2022 alone were:
106,180 colon cancer diagnoses.
44,850 rectal cancer diagnoses.
However, colon or rectal cancer diagnoses have reduced drastically since the late 1900s. This is due to a change in lifestyle-related risk factors and more people opting for screening. Routine screening helps doctors identify and eliminate polyps before they turn into cancer.
With the gradual reduction in incidence rates, the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer has also reduced to about 1 in 23 for men (4.3%). Though not as common as decades ago, statistics prove that colorectal cancer can be fatal if not treated swiftly.
Colon cancer typically starts as tiny noncancerous cell clumps known as polyps. Polyps grow on the colon's interior and gradually develop into colon cancers. They can grow and spread further into the body.
The term "metastasis" refers to cancer cells that spread to different parts of the body.
Adenocarcinomas, or tumors that begin in the lining of an organ, account for around 95% of colorectal cancer cases. A more advanced form of colorectal cancer can spread deeper into the tissue.
Below are the common colon cancer symptoms in men to watch out for and report to your doctor:
Bowel problems such as diarrhea, constipation, and thin stools don’t always indicate cancer. However, severe or prolonged bowel problems may indicate colon or rectal cancer. Frequent constipation, diarrhea, and other bowel problems could indicate colorectal cancer, especially if the change happens suddenly.
If you also feel as though your bowels aren't empty, this could be an indication of colorectal cancer. Cancer can cause blockages in the colon, giving one the constant feeling that they can't empty their bowels.
Seeing streaks of fresh blood in the stool is a possible sign of colorectal cancer and may cause concern. In some cases, your stool may show a darker, tarry appearance, indicating digested blood. While hemorrhoids are a possible cause of bloody stools, ensure you see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis of the possibility of colon cancer.
Generally, gas, an upset stomach, or eating certain foods can cause common digestive issues such as occasional cramping and bloating. However, if these symptoms are frequent and unexplainable, this could indicate colon cancer. Seek an expert opinion and diagnosis, as bloating and cramping could result from other health complications.
You can expect nausea and vomiting if a rectal or colon tumor obstructs your bowel and hinders the passage of liquid or solid waste or gas. A blocked bowel can also be accompanied by painful abdominal cramps, constipation, and bloating.
Generally, sudden and unexplainable weight loss is a non-specific sign and symptom of cancer. For people with cancer, sudden weight loss could result from the cancerous cells consuming more of their body's energy. In this case, the body's immune system is overcompensating to fight off the cancer cells. Large tumors can lead to colon blockages, which often cause bowel changes and gradual or sudden weight loss.
While pain in the pelvic area isn't common with colorectal cancer patients, it can occur if cancer has spread to the pelvic region.
Gradually, cancer drains the patient's energy levels, and fatigue or weakness kicks in. On the one hand, fatigue can be normal, particularly in modern life. On the other hand, chronic fatigue that doesn't go away with rest can be a symptom of an underlying condition.
Factors likely to increase the risk of colon cancer in men include:
If you’re overweight or obese, the risk of developing colorectal cancer and dying from it is higher than if you’re at a healthy weight. The link between obesity and colorectal cancer tends to be higher in men. According to studies from multiple countries, people with a high body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference risk developing colon cancer.
A colon cancer diagnosis has no age limit. However, most people diagnosed with colon cancer are 50 and above. Surprisingly, the rate of colon cancer diagnosis in younger people is gaining traction, with little to no explanation for the sudden trend.
Inactivity also increases your risk of developing colon cancer. Ensure you get regular physical activity to reduce your risk of getting colon cancer.
Dietary factors can increase the risk of colon cancer. The risk of colorectal cancer increases if your diet is high in red meat (liver, lamb, beef, pork, etc.) and processed meats (like luncheon meat and hot dogs).
According to Columbia University, a diet low in fiber and high in calories/fat is associated with colon and rectal cancer. Furthermore, cooking meat at extremely high temperatures, such as deep-frying and grilling, releases carcinogenic chemicals that increase colon cancer risk.⁸
Smoking tobacco increases the risk of developing and dying from colorectal cancer. Smoking is also linked to other cancer types, such as lung cancer. Moderate to heavy alcohol use has also been associated with colorectal cancer.⁹
1 out of 3 people who develop colon cancer has family members who have previously been diagnosed with colon cancer. Individuals with a history of colorectal cancer in a first-degree family member, such as a child, sibling, or parent, are at an increased risk.¹⁰
A person’s risk is higher if more than one first-degree relative has been diagnosed or a family member was diagnosed with colon cancer at a younger age. As with many other cancers, colon cancer does tend to run in the family.
According to the American Cancer Society, you are at an increased risk of colon cancer if you have adenomatous polyps. This is often the case if the polyps are many, sizable, or show dysplasia.
Additionally, if you have a previous colon cancer diagnosis, even if it was fully treated, you are likely to develop new cancer in different parts of the colon and rectum. The risks of developing colon cancer again are even higher if you had your first diagnosis at a younger age.
Generally, African-Americans are at an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. Hispanics are also at risk of developing colon cancer. Additionally, Jews of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) are predisposed to colon cancer.
Radiation therapy directed at your abdomen to treat another type of cancer also increases your risk of colon cancer.
Select gene mutations passing via your family generations can increase your risk of colon cancer. The most commonly inherited genetic mutations that increase the risk of colon cancer include familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and Lynch syndrome.
While most of these colon cancer risk factors are inevitable, some, such as your diet and lifestyle choices, are easy to control and manage to reduce your predisposition.
Colorectal cancer screening is a test conducted to look for colorectal cancer if one doesn't show the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer. Generally, a screening test is conducted if an individual lacks any visible symptoms.
A colorectal cancer screening helps to find precancerous polyps so that they can be removed to prevent the growth of colon cancer. Screening at the early stages helps to prevent colon cancer from developing and putting patients at risk of death.
Starting regular screening at age 45 is key to identifying colorectal cancer and avoiding it in its early stages. According to the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), adults aged 45–75 should be screened for colorectal cancer periodically. There are a few different methods for screening, including:
Fecal occult blood test. This involves testing the stool for blood, which can be a sign of cancer.
Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. These procedures use a long, flexible tube with a camera. Doctors insert it through the rectum to look for potential areas of cancer.
CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy). This involves carrying out a CT scan of the abdomen to look in the colon for signs of cancer.
Once they turn 45, most people go for a colorectal cancer screening and continue to get screened regularly. Doctors advise getting a colorectal cancer screening earlier than that, especially if you have:
A personal or family history of colorectal cancer
An inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease
A genetic syndrome, such as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer or familial adenomatous polyposis
Request a screening from your doctor if you are between the ages of 76 and 85. Individuals over 85 no longer require screening.
The standard approaches for raising suspicions of colorectal cancer and requesting the essential investigation are still a thorough history and physical examination.
However, the reality is that the majority keep postponing screening exams, particularly those for colorectal cancer. Despite how uncomfortable they are, remember that these tests can be life-saving and shouldn't be avoided.
For a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy, the colon must be cleaned, and stool samples must be collected for the fecal occult blood test. Although some modern procedures, like a virtual colonoscopy, may seem interesting, most are experimental and still in the testing stage.
The two most important ways to prevent colorectal cancer include:
Lifestyle changes to reduce the likelihood of colon cancer. You can do this by:
Eating healthy (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains)
Cutting out or reducing red/processed meat
Avoiding or reducing alcohol consumption
Maintaining a healthy weight
It is easy to confuse the common signs of colorectal cancer for digestive problems. Digestive problems such as bloating, constipation, strange bowel activities, etc., can be nothing more than that at face value.
However, if these symptoms are persistent and intense, it could be a sign that you need a check-up. Most people with colon cancer don't show early symptoms. As such, these colon cancer signs and symptoms in men could indicate that the cancer is spreading.
Ensure you visit the doctor immediately if you notice any strange signs and symptoms. Even though the underlying cause may not be colon cancer, you can get an accurate diagnosis to help you recover.
Colon cancer typically starts as polyps that develop in the colon's interior. In the initial stages, colon cancer symptoms in men are almost invisible or hard to detect. However, the cancer cells grow as time progresses, and the symptoms show.
Colon cancer symptoms include strange bowel habits, blood in the stool, rectal bleeding, bloating, nausea, etc. Fortunately, colon cancer can be treated through surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
Risk factors that increase the likelihood of colon cancer include eating plenty of red or processed meat, old age, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, smoking, alcohol usage, and having a family member previously diagnosed with colon cancer.
While there are no certainties, testing and prevention shouldn't be the end of it. Colon cancer risk can be dramatically reduced by several strategies, including lowering your consumption of red meat, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and above all, not smoking.
More importantly, consult with your doctor about any minor development likely to point towards colon cancer symptoms in men.
Colon and rectal cancer | Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Key statistics for colorectal cancer | American Cancer Society
Cancer statistics (2022)
Cancer statistics at a glance | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Know the facts | Colorectal Cancer Alliance
The state of colorectal cancer research and care: Q+A with Drs. Debbie Bakes and Rachael Safyan | Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Alcohol and cancer risk | NIH: National Cancer Institute
Colorectal cancer risk factors | American Cancer Society
Colorectal cancer facts & figures 2020-2022 | American Cancer Society
Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and genetic risk | OncoLink
Colorectal cancer: Screening | U.S. Preventive Serivces Task Force
Cancer stat facts: Colorectal cancer | NIH: National Cancer Institute
Colon cancer symptoms | Johns Hopkins Medicine