What’s the difference between these two types of cancer?
While the term “colorectal cancer” is used frequently, colon and rectal cancer have some important differences.
In your body, the colon and rectum sit close to each other. Your colon is the longest part of your large intestine, and your rectum makes up just the last 12 centimeters of your large intestine.
Though the two organs share space, the way a physician would treat cancer might differ, depending on where exactly the cancer is, says Dr. Jan P. Kaminski, a colorectal surgeon and rectal cancer program director at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. Rectal cancer is often more difficult to treat and can spread more easily due to the absence of the serosa — a protective layer that covers the colon. Rectal cancer is commonly treated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy first, followed by surgery.
On the other hand, colon cancer is typically treated with surgery to remove part of or the entire colon. In most cases, a surgeon may also remove lymph nodes to stop the cancer from spreading.
As with all cancers, early detection can be the difference between life and death.
“Colon and rectal cancer can be one of the most treatable cancers, especially when found early. A roundtable of our specialists for colon cancer and rectal cancer meet regularly to discuss the best treatment, tailored specifically to each patient,” says Dr. Kaminski says.
There are differences in risk and prevalence among men and women. Although colon cancer is equally common in men and women, rectal cancer is more common in men than women. Colon cancer is also much more common than rectal cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, 2019 has already seen 101,420 new cases of colon cancer and 44,180 new cases of rectal cancer.
Despite their differences, colon and rectal cancer share similar symptoms including rectal bleeding, dark stools, change in bowel habits, cramping and stomach pain, weakness and fatigue, vomiting and weight loss.
The two cancer types also share risk factors such as physical inactivity smoking, drinking more than one alcoholic beverage a day, eating a diet high in red meat, a personal history of colorectal polyps or inflammatory bowel disease and a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, Dr. Kaminski says. Both cancers are also more common in African Americans and people living with type 2 diabetes.
Ask your physician about what screenings might work best for you.
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