Cancer in the colon or rectum is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in the United States. The National Cancer Institute estimates in 2017 there will be 135,430 new cases of colon and rectal cancer in men and women — including 4,000 veterans — resulting in an estimated 50,260 deaths.  

But when colon or rectum cancer is found and removed early, the chances of a full recovery are very good. If cancer is found only in the part of the body where it started (sometimes referred to as localized or stage 1) and diagnosed at the local stage, the five-year survival rate is 89.9 percent.

Signs of Colon Cancer

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Signs of colon cancer include blood in the stool or a change in bowel habits. Other symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea, constipation or feeling that the bowel does not empty all the way;
  • Stools that are narrower than usual;
  • Frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness or cramps;
  • Weight loss for no known reason;
  • Feeling very tired; and
  • Vomiting.

However, polyps that lead to colon cancer can take up to 15 years to develop and often don’t cause noticeable symptoms at first. By the time symptoms do appear, cancer may have begun to spread.

The most effective way to help find — and treat — cancer at an early stage is through screening.

Colorectal Cancer Screening

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There are many tests and procedures that examine the colon and rectum to find and diagnose cancer even when you have no symptoms. These screening tests, which include everything from a physical exam of the body to check general signs of health and a digital rectal exam to a fecal occult blood test and a colonoscopy, should be repeated on a regular basis from age 50 to 75, especially if you have a risk of developing colon cancer.

Colon Cancer Risk Factors

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Risk factors for colorectal cancer include:

  • Being 50 years of age or older;
  • Having a family history or personal history of cancer of the colon, rectum or ovary;
  • Having three or more alcoholic drinks per day;
  • Smoking cigarettes; and
  • Being obese.

Talk to your doctor if you think you may be at risk for colorectal cancer.

Colorectal Cancer Prevention

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To reduce the chance of developing colon cancer, avoid risk factors and increase protective factors. Monitor your weight, and eat nutrient-rich foods. Stay physically fit. Limit your alcohol intake, and quit smoking.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has made it a priority to screen its patients 50 years or older for colon cancer, and its screening rate exceeds the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable goal and the national average.

If you are 50 or older, talk to your health care provider about getting screened and your risk for colon cancer.

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