Colon cancer is a very serious form of intestinal cancer that is largely found in industrialized nations where affluence has led to a poor diet of dead, overcooked foods with little nutritional value or fiber content. Combine this with a sedentary lifestyle, which only helps waste products to linger in the colon instead of being promptly eliminated from the body, and you have a recipe for disaster called colon or colorectal cancer.
What is Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer is the growth of cancerous (malignant) cells in the large intestine, also known as the colon. The large intestine composes the lower part of the intestinal tract, approximately the last six feet. The rectum is the last 8-10 inches of the colon, and this is where fecal matter leaves the body through the anus. Rectal cancer is malignancy in the rectum. These cancers are collectively referred to as colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer is relatively common in the United States, with approximately 130,000 new cases diagnosed annually. It is also a very deadly form of cancer, and is in fact the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. Only lung cancer takes more lives. Colorectal cancer has few if any distinct symptoms in the early stages of the disease, so one of the reasons it has such a high mortality rate is because it is usually discovered after it has become quite developed and spread to other areas of the body. But despite the tragic statistics, the good news about colorectal cancer is that there are excellent screening tests available to spot it early, and most colorectal cancer is preventable through diet and lifestyle adjustments.
The majority of colorectal cases begin with the growth of benign (noncancerous) collections of cells that typically grow in the lining of the intestines called adenomatous polyps. Over time some of these can become malignant and turn into the most common form of colorectal cancer called adenocarcinomas. Benign adenomatous polyps may be surgically removed when they are found in order to eliminate them before they have a chance to turn malignant.
The other two most common types of polyps found in the colon are:
- Inflammatory polyps, which often form in conjunction with ulcerative colitis. Some of these may become cancerous, thus having ulcerative colitis is a risk factor for colorectal cancer.
- Hyperplastic polyps: These types of polyps are rarely at risk for becoming cancerous.
Once colorectal cancer has been diagnosed, it can be “rated” as to the seriousness of the condition based on how far and wide the malignancy has spread. The ratings are as follows:
- Stage 0: The earliest stage with the greatest chance of total recovery. The cancer has not spread beyond the mucosa (inner layer) of the colon or rectum.
- Stage I: The cancer has grown beyond the mucosa, but is still localized within the wall of the colon or rectum.
- Stage II: The cancer has penetrated the colon or rectal wall, but has not spread to lymph nodes in the area.
- Stage III: It has metastasized into lymph tissue, but has not yet spread to other organs.
- Stage IV: The most advanced and critical stage, whereby the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Examples of commonly infected organs include the liver, lungs, ovaries, or peritoneum (lining of the abdominal cavity).
- Recurrent: This is a term that refers to malignancy that has returned after treatment or remission. The cancer may strike the colorectal area or other parts of the body.
What Are the Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer?
For many folks with colon cancer, there may be no symptoms at all early in the disease. When they do appear, they will vary from person to person, based mostly on the location in the large intestine or rectum, and the size of the tumors. Most of the symptoms are not unique to colorectal cancer, but may mimic other bowel conditions such as diverticulitis, diverticulosis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Many times early diagnosis of colorectal cancer is missed because it is assumed the symptoms are the result of other conditions such as these. Pay particular attention to any symptoms that seem to be persistent and getting progressively worse. Signs you should be aware of that might be indicators of colorectal cancer include:
- Changes in bowel habits: Unexplained bouts of diarrhea or constipation, or changes in the consistency of your stool, that linger for more than a two-week period.
- Narrow stools (pencil thin)
- Rectal bleeding
- Blood in your stool
- Chronic, persistent abdominal cramps, gas, or pain
- Pain when moving your bowels
- Fecal urgency (constantly feeling like you need to move your bowels)
- Stomach pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Decreased appetite
- Extreme fatigue
A note regarding blood in your stool: Bright red blood found on toilet tissue after wiping can be a concern, but it may simply be from hemorrhoids or slight tears in your anus. Most people experience this from time to time, and it is usually not a sign of disease. Certain foods or medications can also affect the color of your stool. For example, eating beets may make them red, or anti-diarrheal medicines can make stools black or tarry. Rare occurrences such as these are not of concern. What you want to watch out for are consistent patterns that are not normal.
What Are the Causes or Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer?
There are many factors that can increase or decrease your chances of developing colorectal cancer. Some of these are avoidable based on choices you make, and some are beyond your control. The most common and major ones include:
- Diet: This is by far the most determining factor in colorectal cancer, and fortunately, one that you can actually do something about. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is composed of high fat, high calorie foods with little roughage and minimal nutritional value. Eating junky fast foods with empty calories is an all to common habit for many Americans, but unfortunately, even if you attempt to eat better by shopping at the grocery store, your options are not much better. It takes a proactive decision to do whatever it takes to buy and consume whole, natural, raw foods that will give your body the nutritional value it needs, along with the fiber to keep your colon healthy and functioning properly. If you need to sacrifice time and money in order to accomplish this, then these are choices you must make. A poor diet that causes waste products to accumulate in the colon, instead of being promptly and efficiently eliminated several times a day shortly after eating, is hands down the number one risk factor for colorectal cancer. The rate of such cancers is very small in undeveloped countries where the people eat a simple, natural diet and have several bowel movements daily. Our colons were not designed to store fecal matter for long periods of time.
- Sedentary lifestyle: The lack of physical exercise is the second largest factor in colorectal cancer, and also one of the reasons why this disease runs rampant in affluent, industrialized nations. One of the many benefits of regular physical activity is that it encourages food and waste products to move quickly through the bowel. The combination of overeating the wrong kinds of foods and a sedentary “couch potato” lifestyle is a deadly one two punch when it comes to many kinds of disease, including colorectal cancer.
- History of other intestinal conditions: A personal history of such inflammatory diseases as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis can also increase your risk for colorectal cancer.
- Family history: If colorectal cancer runs in your family, you are at greater risk yourself. This may be due to environmental or cultural factors in your family, or it may be hereditary in nature. One example of an inherited risk factor is called Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). This condition leads to the formation of hundreds of polyps in the lining of the colon and/or rectum, and it is likely that if you have FAP you will develop colon or rectal cancer by the age of 40.
- Age: Most cases of colorectal cancer, up to 90%, are found in folks over the age of 50.
- Smoking: Cigarette smokers face a much greater risk of dying from colorectal cancer than non-smokers. The risk may increase by as much as 30-40%.
- Heavy drinking: Alcohol abuse will also increase your risk of contracting colorectal cancer.
What Treatments Are Available for Colorectal Cancer?
The most typical allopathic treatments for colorectal cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. There are many surgical options, depending on the location and extent of the cancer. Sometimes a diseased part of the colon can be removed and the remaining healthy parts stitched back together. In other cases, a colostomy is needed. This is when an opening is made in the abdomen, and fecal matter is diverted into a bag that is worn by the patient and must be emptied manually.
Most of the surgeries are followed by chemotherapy, the use of drugs to kill any remaining cancer cells. The side effects of chemotherapy can be very significant and unpleasant, as well as dangerous.
Radiation therapy is the use of x-rays that are directed at cancerous tissues in order to stop the cancerous cells from dividing. One of the main drawbacks of radiation therapy, in addition to the unpleasant side effects, is that it also stunts the growth of healthy cells, and can thus limit the body’s natural attempts to heal itself.
Both chemotherapy and radiation are very hard on the immune system as well, which further complicates healing issues. If, after thoroughly researching the specifics of your situation, you choose to go with either of these therapies, there are many natural alternatives that can help support your body and protect against the negative effects of these treatments. Remember, decisions regarding your health and wellness are up to you, not your doctors.
It is much wiser to make dietary and lifestyle choices that prevent colorectal cancer in the first place. Change the way you eat and make sure you get enough physical activity to keep you well. Another recommendation is the use of a high-quality, natural oxygen-based colon cleanser that will rid your intestines of any accumulated fecal matter that has been clogging up your colon over the years. Keeping the colon clean and operating efficiently is the best thing any one can do to combat colorectal cancer.
I also suggest regular digital rectal exams and fecal occult blood tests to catch any colorectal cancer as early as possible. These should be performed annually or even more often if you are considered at high risk for colorectal cancer. This would include folks with conditions such as FAP, as well as those with a family or personal history of the disease. Fecal occult blood tests are not totally definitive, as blood in the stool can occur from such things as hemorrhoids. But they can easily be self-administered at home, and are a tool that should be implemented in the fight against colorectal cancer.