Cancer that begins in the colon is called colon cancer, and cancer that begins in the rectum is called rectal cancer. Cancer that starts in either of these organs may also be called colorectal cancer.
In the United States, colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in men, after skin, prostate, and lung cancer. It is also the fourth most common cancer in women, after skin, breast, and lung cancer.
If you have screening test results that suggest cancer or you have symptoms, your doctor must find out whether they are due to cancer or some other cause. Your doctor asks about your personal and family medical history and gives you a physical exam.
If your physical exam and test results do not suggest cancer, your doctor may decide that no further tests are needed and no treatment is necessary. However, your doctor may recommend a schedule for checkups.
If tests show an abnormal area (such as a polyp), a biopsy to check for cancer cells may be necessary. Often, the abnormal tissue can be removed during colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. A pathologist checks the tissue for cancer cells using a microscope.
If the biopsy shows that cancer is present, your doctor needs to know the extent (stage) of the disease to plan the best treatment. The stage is based on whether the tumor has invaded nearby tissues, whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to what parts of the body.
Your doctor may order some of the following tests:
- Blood tests: Your doctor checks for carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and other substances in the blood. Some people who have colorectal cancer or other conditions have a high CEA level.
- Colonoscopy: If colonoscopy was not performed for diagnosis, your doctor checks for abnormal areas along the entire length of the colon and rectum with a colonoscope.
- Endorectal ultrasound: An ultrasound probe is inserted into your rectum. The probe sends out sound waves that people cannot hear. The waves bounce off your rectum and nearby tissues, and a computer uses the echoes to create a picture. The picture may show how deep a rectal tumor has grown or whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other nearby tissues.
- Chest x-ray: X-rays of your chest may show whether cancer has spread to your lungs.
- CT scan: An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside your body. You may receive an injection of dye. A CT scan may show whether cancer has spread to the liver, lungs, or other organs.
Your doctor may also use other tests (such as MRI) to see whether the cancer has spread. Sometimes staging is not complete until after surgery to remove the tumor.
Doctors describe colorectal cancer by the following stages:
- Stage 0: The cancer is found only in the innermost lining of the colon or rectum. Carcinoma in situ is another name for Stage 0 colorectal cancer.
- Stage I: The tumor has grown into the inner wall of the colon or rectum. The tumor has not grown through the wall.
- Stage II: The tumor extends more deeply into or through the wall of the colon or rectum. It may have invaded nearby tissue, but cancer cells have not spread to the lymph nodes.
- Stage III: The cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, but not to other parts of the body.
- Stage IV: The cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver or lungs.
- Recurrence: This is cancer that has been treated and has returned after a period of time when the cancer could not be detected. The disease may return in the colon or rectum, or in another part of the body.
The choice of treatment depends mainly on the location of the tumor in the colon or rectum and the stage of the disease. Treatment for colorectal cancer may involve surgery, chemotherapy, biological therapy or radiation therapy. Some people have a combination of treatments. These treatments are described below.
Colon cancer sometimes is treated differently from rectal cancer. Treatments for colon and rectal cancer are described separately below.
Your doctor can describe your treatment choices and the expected results. You and your doctor can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your needs.
Cancer treatment is either local therapy or systemic therapy:
- Local therapy: Surgery and radiation therapy are local therapies. They remove or destroy cancer in or near the colon or rectum. When colorectal cancer has spread to other parts of the body, local therapy may be used to control the disease in those specific areas.
- Systemic therapy: Chemotherapy and biological therapy are systemic therapies. The drugs enter the bloodstream and destroy or control cancer throughout the body.
Surgery is the most common treatment for colorectal cancer.
- Colonoscopy: A small malignant polyp may be removed from your colon or upper rectum with a colonoscope. Some small tumors in the lower rectum can be removed through your anus without a colonoscope.
- Laparoscopy: Early colon cancer may be removed with the aid of a thin, lighted tube (laparoscope). Three or four tiny cuts are made into your abdomen. The surgeon sees inside your abdomen with the laparoscope. The tumor and part of the healthy colon are removed. Nearby lymph nodes also may be removed. The surgeon checks the rest of your intestine and your liver to see if the cancer has spread.
- Open surgery: The surgeon makes a large cut into your abdomen to remove the tumor and part of the healthy colon or rectum. Some nearby lymph nodes are also removed. The surgeon checks the rest of your intestine and your liver to see if the cancer has spread.
When a section of your colon or rectum is removed, the surgeon can usually reconnect the healthy parts. However, sometimes reconnection is not possible. In this case, the surgeon creates a new path for waste to leave your body. The surgeon makes an opening (stoma) in the wall of the abdomen, connects the upper end of the intestine to the stoma, and closes the other end. The operation to create the stoma is called a colostomy. A flat bag fits over the stoma to collect waste, and a special adhesive holds it in place.
For most people, the stoma is temporary. It is needed only until the colon or rectum heals from surgery. After healing takes place, the surgeon reconnects the parts of the intestine and closes the stoma. Some people, especially those with a tumor in the lower rectum, need a permanent stoma.
Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and can affect cancer cells all over the body.
Anticancer drugs are usually given through a vein, but some may be given by mouth. You may be treated in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor’s office, or at home. Rarely, a hospital stay may be needed.
Some people with colorectal cancer that has spread receive a monoclonal antibody, a type of biological therapy. The monoclonal antibodies bind to colorectal cancer cells. They interfere with cancer cell growth and the spread of cancer. People receive monoclonal antibodies through a vein at the doctor’s office, hospital, or clinic. Some people receive chemotherapy at the same time.
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It affects cancer cells only in the treated area.
Doctors use different types of radiation therapy to treat cancer. Sometimes people receive two types:
- External radiation: The radiation comes from a machine. The most common type of machine used for radiation therapy is called a linear accelerator. Most patients go to the hospital or clinic for their treatment, generally 5 days a week for several weeks.
- Internal radiation (implant radiation or brachytherapy): The radiation comes from radioactive material placed in thin tubes put directly into or near the tumor. The patient stays in the hospital, and the implants generally remain in place for several days. Usually they are removed before the patient goes home.
- Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT): In some cases, radiation is given during surgery.
Most patients with colon cancer are treated with surgery. Some people have both surgery and chemotherapy. Some with advanced disease get biological therapy.
A colostomy is seldom needed for people with colon cancer.
Although radiation therapy is rarely used to treat colon cancer, sometimes it is used to relieve pain and other symptoms.
For all stages of rectal cancer, surgery is the most common treatment. Some patients receive surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Some with advanced disease get biological therapy.
About 1 out of 8 people with rectal cancer needs a permanent colostomy.
Radiation therapy may be used before and after surgery. Some people have radiation therapy before surgery to shrink the tumor, and some have it after surgery to kill cancer cells that may remain in the area. At some hospitals, patients may have radiation therapy during surgery. People also may have radiation therapy to relieve pain and other problems caused by the cancer.
Visit the National Cancer Institute where this information and more can be found about Colon and Rectal Cancer or ask your cancer care team questions about your individual situation.