How does cancer affect the colon?
Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States not including skin cancer, so understanding colon health and colon cancer is important to your overall health.
But you may have wondered, “What is a colon anyway?”
“After we eat and chew our food, it goes into our stomach, where stomach acid works to break down the food,” explains Dr. Anushka Baruah, gastroenterologist at Aurora Medical Center — Sheboygan County. “This broken-down food then makes its way through our small intestine where most digestion takes place with the help of digestive enzymes. After this process of digestion, the leftover food material makes its way to the large intestine, also called the colon.”
The colon, also known as the large intestine, is a tubular structure that is the next step for this leftover food material. The colon reabsorbs excess water from the leftovers and colonic bacteria break down the food material further resulting in the formation of stool.
Like many other parts of the body, the colon can also be affected by cancer. So, how does cancer affect the colon?
“Cancer is an overgrowth of abnormal cells in the body. When cancer forms in the colon, it begins with abnormal cell growth inside the colon,” says Dr. Baruah. “This means that, initially, there will be no evidence of cancer outside of the colon.”
If it goes untreated, this abnormal cell growth will permeate to different layers of the colon and can then spread to different areas in the body, like the liver and lungs.
Family history of colon cancer in first degree relatives, certain genetic syndromes and an individuals with a history of inflammatory bowel disease are known risk factors for developing colon cancer.
For those who do not have a higher risk, colon cancer is preventable by making different lifestyle changes.
“To keep a colon healthy, minimize eating red meats and processed meats, avoid smoking, and do not drink excessively,” explains Dr. Baruah. “These lifestyle changes, along with eating a high fiber diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables can help lower the risk for colon cancer.”
While there are several different screening tests for colon cancer, Dr. Baruah says screening colonoscopies are the gold standard for detection and therapeutic intervention for precancerous polyps.
She also recommends that for patients with a family history of colon cancer or those with certain genetic syndromes and inflammatory bowel disease, colonoscopies are the only recommended screening tool for detection of colon cancer.
These screenings are crucial to remember, even if you do not think you are at risk, as you may not have any symptoms for colon cancer in the early stages.
If you’re concerned about your colon cancer risk, you can also take this free online quiz to learn more.
About the Author
“Hannah Koerner is a Public Affairs Specialist with Advocate Aurora Health. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Communication from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. In her free time, she enjoys biking, snowshoeing, and cheering on Wisconsin sports teams.”