Noticing blood in your stool is scary. Although it’s often due to something that’s easy to treat, it could be a sign of a more serious condition—like colorectal cancer. Learning about this type of cancer and what to look for can help you lower your risk factors or discover a problem early while it’s easier to treat. Here’s a brief overview of what you need to know about colorectal cancer.

What is Colorectal Cancer?

A cancer that develops in the colon or rectum is called colorectal cancer. Cancers that start in the colon are also called colon cancers and ones that start in the rectum are also called rectal cancers, but the two are usually lumped together into one category because they share many of the same features.

The Start of Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancers usually start as a small growth on the lining of the colon or rectum known as a polyp. Not all polyps become cancer and those that do usually take several years to develop into cancer. Certain characteristics of polyps increase the likelihood that a person may develop colorectal cancer:

  • Type – Adenomatous polyps are more likely to change into cancer than other types.
  • Size – Polyps larger than 1 cm indicate a higher risk of cancer.
  • Number – Having more than two polyps increases the risk of developing cancer.
  • Dysplasia – This is when cells appear abnormal, but are not true cancer cells.

Colorectal Cancer Stages

Colorectal cancer progresses through various stages. If you are diagnosed with cancer, your doctor will determine what stage it is in order to treat it most effectively. There are four stages of colorectal cancer:

  • Stage 1 – The cancer penetrates the colon or rectum lining.
  • Stage 2 – The cancer has reached the colon or rectum walls.
  • Stage 3 – The cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 4 – The cancer has moved to other parts of the body, like the lungs or liver.

Risk Factors

Having certain risk factors increases your chances of developing colorectal cancer. This doesn’t mean that if you have risk factors you’ll get cancer or that if you don’t have any risk factors that you won’t—it simply means you are at a higher risk. Some risk factors can be changed while others can’t. Here are the common risk factors for colorectal cancer:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Certain types of diets, like those high in red or processed meats
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Being older than 50 years of age
  • A history of colorectal polyps or cancer
  • A history of inflammatory bowel disease
  • A family history of colorectal polyps or cancer
  • Certain inherited syndromes, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and Lynch syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes

Prevention of Colorectal Cancer

It’s impossible to prevent all cases of colorectal cancer, but doing certain things can help you lower your risk.

  • Screening – Because it takes time for polyps to change into cancer, regular screenings can often find and remove polyps before they become cancerous.
  • Weight – Managing your weight helps lower your risk for developing colorectal cancer. Belly fat seems to be a particularly strong link, so try to avoid weight gain around your midsection.
  • Physical activity – Regular moderate to vigorous activity, the kind that makes you breathe hard, can help reduce your risk.
  • Diet – A balanced diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in processed and red meats has been linked to lower colorectal cancer risk.
  • Alcohol – Limiting alcohol intake to a moderate amount helps reduce risk.
  • Not smoking – Quitting smoking lowers your risk.

Signs and Symptoms

Colorectal cancer doesn’t always display noticeable signs, and many of the symptoms could also be caused by something else. However, if you notice any of the following signs of colorectal cancer, talk to your doctor about them.

  • Change in bowel habits lasting more than a few days, such as constipation, diarrhea, bowel incontinence or narrowing of the stool
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Blood in the stool
  • Changes in stool color
  • Feeling the urge to have a bowel movement that isn’t relieved after having one
  • Passing excessive gas
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Abdominal pain, bloating or cramping
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Unexplained anemia

Screening for Early Detection

Discovering colorectal cancer early greatly increases the chance of curing the disease. Various screening tests help doctors determine the presence of polyps or cancer. These include:

  • Blood testing – There isn’t a specific blood test that can determine colorectal cancer, but blood work is useful in ruling out other disorders.
  • Colonoscopy – A long tube with a camera is used to examine your colon and rectum.
  • X-ray – Barium inserted into the bowels coats the lining so an X-ray can be used to see an outline of the area.
  • CT scan – Also known as a virtual colonoscopy, this provides a detailed image of the colon.

Regular screening is key in helping prevent colorectal cancer and in discover the disease early. It’s recommended that people over age 50 begin regular screenings, but people at a higher risk may benefit from beginning screenings earlier.

Treatment for Colorectal Cancer

When found early, it is highly treatable. Depending on the cancer stage, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

Colorectal cancer is a serious condition, but taking steps to lower your risk and getting regular screenings can be life-saving.