Colon cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer. The National Cancer Institute estimates that approximately 106,000 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer in 2009. The symptoms of colon cancer mirror those of other disorders, which may cause patients to delay seeking prompt medical attention.

Colon Primer

The colon is a large, muscular tube and the last portion of the digestive tract. You may also hear the colon called the large intestine or the large bowel. The colon is the first four to five feet of the large intestine and the rectum is the last several inches. Partially digested food enters the colon from the small intestine. The colon removes water and nutrients from the food and turns the rest into waste.

Signs of Colon Cancer

The primary symptoms of colon cancer are diarrhea, constipation, or other changes in bowel habits.

Other typical symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain or tenderness
  • Blood in the stool or narrow stools
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Feeling very tired all the time
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Frequent gas pains or cramps, feeling full or bloated
  • The feeling that your bowel does not empty completely

The good news is that colon cancer grows slowly, so when you catch it early, you can usually treat it successfully. However, colon cancer does not exhibit symptoms in the early stage of the disease. When symptoms do finally appear, the cancer is more advanced.

Screening for colon cancer is critical to early detection. In fact, 40 percent of colon cancer cases are diagnosed while the cancer is still confined to the original site and has not spread.

Experts recommend that most adults begin screening at age 50 if they don't have any symptoms or risk factors. After your initial screening, your physician will recommend future screenings based on your results and risk factors. If you have a family history of colon cancer, or another digestive disease such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (which is a risk factor for colon cancer), your doctor may suggest earlier or more frequent screenings.

While there are several diagnostic tests for colon cancer, the colonoscopy is currently the gold standard. During a colonoscopy, your gastroenterologist will view the entire length of the colon with a lighted scope to check for cancer or polyps (growths on the colon wall). Polyps are generally benign. However, if your physician finds polyps during the examination, he or she will remove them before they can become cancerous. Colonoscopies serve the dual role of preventative and diagnostic.