Skip to Main Content

Colorectal Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

  • A malignant (cancerous) growth that forms in the colon or rectum
  • Symptoms include change in bowel habits, blood in stool, occult bleeding, weight loss, and fatigue
  • Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy
  • Involves Yale Cancer Center, Surgery, Therapeutic Radiology

Overview

Our large intestines—made up of the cecum, colon and rectum—are the last stop in our digestive system. Sometimes, a small growth, called a polyp, can form on the inner wall of the colon or rectum. Although many polyps are benign (not cancerous), some become cancerous when a change in the DNA causes abnormal cells to grow.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States, with 135,000 new cases occurring each year. Though some cases are inherited, for many patients the exact cause can be hard to pinpoint. Treatment depends on how advanced the cancer has become but often includes some type of surgery to remove the tumor.

“Colorectal cancer is one of the more common cancers in the United States, and our teams of physicians and scientists at the Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital are making great progress in developing more effective means of prevention, early detection and treatment,” says Smilow Cancer Hospital physician-in-chief and Yale Cancer Center director Charles Fuchs, MD. “Still, it is important that people discuss with their primary care physicians screening approaches for detecting colorectal cancers and polyps early, especially people who are 50 years or older and those with a family history of colorectal cancer.”

Who’s at risk for colorectal cancer?

Though incidence is rising in young people, most cases of colorectal cancer affect older adults. It has been linked to inflammatory bowel disease (disorders involving chronic inflammation of your digestive tract like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis). It’s also been associated with certain lifestyle factors, such as cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, a lack of exercise and a high-fat and low-fiber diet.

About 20 percent of colorectal cancer patients have a family history of the disease, possibly due to one of the following inherited conditions:

  • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), which causes hundreds or even thousands of polyps to form in the colon.
  • MUTYH-associated polyposis (MAP) syndrome, which is a more recently discovered disorder that resembles FAP.
  • Gardner syndrome, which results in the development of numerous polyps along with other abnormal lesions.
  • Lynch syndrome, or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, which often affects people at a younger age and can lead to cancers in other parts of the body as well.

What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?

Symptoms depend on the location, type and stage of the cancer. The most common symptom of colorectal cancer is a change in bowel habits. Patients may also notice blood in the stool, as well as unexplained weight loss. Occult bleeding (bleeding that you can’t see) in the stool may also cause weakness and fatigue. But the truth is, because colorectal cancer grows slowly, symptoms may not appear for a long time. That’s why screening is so important for detecting cancer at an early stage.

How is colorectal cancer diagnosed?

Colonoscopy, a recommended screening test for anyone over 50, is also used to diagnose colorectal cancer in patients who are experiencing symptoms associated with the disease. During the procedure, a doctor uses a tool called a colonoscope, which has a tiny camera, to check for polyps or abnormal tissue in the large intestine. One benefit of having regular colonoscopies is that any potentially cancerous polyps are removed on the spot, to prevent the disease from even starting.

If a doctor finds a tumor during the procedure, a sample of the tumor is taken to be looked at under a microscope, and then the patient is referred to a surgeon for treatment. Meanwhile, lab tests can be done to confirm the diagnosis.

How is colorectal cancer treated?

The American Joint Committee on Cancer has developed a staging system for colorectal cancer—ranging from stage 0 (least invasive) to stage IV (most invasive)—that doctors use to determine the best treatment plan.

Surgery is usually the first part of treatment. For early-stage cancers, the tumor and small portions of the bowel may be removed, allowing digestive function to remain intact. For more advanced disease, a colostomy (an opening in the colon) or ileostomy (an opening in the ileum, which is part of the small intestine) may be created as a temporary or permanent pathway for waste.

Patients with advanced cancer also typically receive some combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Stage IV disease means that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, so the treatment strategy will need to be tailored to the patient’s individual needs.

What makes Yale Cancer Center uniquely qualified to treat this cancer?

“At Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital,” says Dr. Fuchs, “we are committed to providing state-of-the-art, multi-disciplinary and compassionate care that engages our team of experts.” Our approach utilizes ground-breaking technologies that ensure that every patient receives the most effective treatment, he says. “We believe that taking a precision medicine approach is helping us to win the battle against colorectal cancer.”