Colon and rectal cancer

Colorectal Cancer: What You Need to Know

Last year in the United States, more than 136,000 people were diagnosed with—and more than 50,000 died from—colorectal cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. It is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, striking some groups more often than others. The toll this disease takes on minorities is especially high, said Jonca Bull, M.D., director of FDA’s Office of Minority Health. Populations with limited access to screening and early treatment die much more often from the disease—African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives. But there is a way of confronting this hazard, she added: “Early detection, referral, and treatment can significantly reduce disparities in deaths from colorectal cancer.”

Screening saves lives

Colorectal cancer usually starts from polyps or other precancerous growths in the rectum or the colon (large intestine). People with precancerous growths or signs of colorectal cancer don’t always show symptoms. That’s why screening is important—doctors can see and remove growths or suspicious tissue before they become cancerous.

Your risk for colorectal cancer increases if you:


Have a history of inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease

Have a family history of colorectal cancer

Have a personal history of colorectal cancer or colon polyps

Have certain genetic syndromes (for example, Lynch or FAP)

Have diabetes

You should see your doctor also if you have any of these symptoms, even though they do not necessarily indicate colorectal cancer:

A change in bowel habits (for example, diarrhea, constipation, feeling that the bowel does not empty all the way)

Bright or dark blood in stool

Stools narrower than usual

Frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness, or cramps

Weight loss for no known reason

Feeling very tired


When and how should I get screened?

You should begin getting screened at age 50 if you are at average risk of developing colorectal cancer. However, some people at higher risk for colon cancer may need to be screened earlier and some may need to undergo more frequent screening. Discuss with your doctor the best strategy for you. Here are several options:

A colonoscopy— A doctor uses this thin tube with a light and lens to look inside the rectum and colon for growths, other abnormal tissue, or cancer. You will need to prepare for the test and will be sedated during it.

Routine screening: every 10 years.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy—A doctor uses a thin tube with a light and lens to look inside the rectum and lower third of the colon for growths, other abnormal areas tissues, or cancer. This thin tube may also include a tool for removing abnormal tissue for examination. You will need to prepare for the test.

Routine screening: every 5 years.