Jefferson University Hospitals

Colon Cancer

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Any malignant (cancerous) growth in the tissues of the colon or rectum is known as colorectal cancer.

Also known as colon cancer or rectal cancer, colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer in men and women in the U.S. But, regular medical screenings including colonoscopies (tests that allow doctors to see the inner lining of your rectum and colon) have improved the odds of finding precancerous conditions like polyps (abnormal tissue growths) and removing them before they become cancerous tumors. Through early detection, this type of cancer is highly curable.

Colon Cancer Signs & Symptoms

The most telltale sign of colon cancer is having blood that is either bright red or very dark in your stool. Another symptom is a change in bowel habits including a feeling that the bowel is not emptying all the way, excessive diarrhea or constipation. Some people develop gastrointestinal symptoms including: frequent gas pain, feeling bloated or cramps. Others develop abnormal stool elimination including stools that are narrower than usual. Unexplained vomiting or weight loss and fatigue may also be symptoms of colorectal cancer.

Colon Cancer Risk Factors

  • Age 50 or older (45 or older for African Americans)
  • African descent
  • Women who have had breast, ovary or uterine cancer
  • Personal or family history of polyps
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • Diets high in animal protein and saturated fats and low in fiber
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Heavy smoking and/or alcohol use
  • Lack of scheduling regular colonoscopies to screen for polyps

Types of Colon Cancer

  • Adenocarcinoma – Cancer that begins in cells that make and release mucus and other fluids. 95% of colorectal cancers are adenocarcinomas.
  • Carcinoid  – Cancerous tumors that begin in the hormone-producing cells of the intestine 
  • Gastrointestinal Stromal  – Cancerous tumors that begin colon wall cells
  • Lymphomas – Cancers of the immune system cells that typically start in lymph nodes but may also start in the colon or rectum
  • Sarcomas – Cancerous tumors that start in the muscle and connective tissue in the wall of the colon. This type of colorectal cancer is very rare.

How Colon Cancer is Diagnosed

The colon cancer specialists at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Jefferson Health and the Jefferson Colon and Rectal Cancer Center work as a team to confirm your diagnosis. Our thorough examination begins with a discussion about your symptoms and a review of your medical history. We employ a series of diagnostic imaging tests to examine the inside of your bowel. Many of these tests can detect colon cancer during its earliest stages of the cancer when the chances for a cure are much higher.

Stages of Colon Cancer

  • In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the innermost layer of the colon wall. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue.
  • In stage I colon cancer, cancer has formed in the innermost layer of the colon wall and has spread to the layer of tissue next to the innermost layer or to the muscle layer of the colon wall.
  • Stage II colon cancer is divided into stages IIA, IIB, and IIC:
    • Stage IIA: Cancer has spread through the muscle layer of the colon wall to the outermost layer of the colon wall.
    • Stage IIB: Cancer has spread through the outermost layer of the colon wall to the tissue that lines the organs in the abdomen.
    • Stage IIC: Cancer has spread through the outermost layer of the colon wall to nearby organs.
  • Stage III colon cancer is divided into stages IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC:
    • In stage IIIA, cancer has spread through the innermost layer of the colon wall to the layer of tissue next to the innermost layer, or to the muscle layer of the colon wall. Cancer has spread to one to three nearby lymph nodes or cancer cells have formed in tissue near the lymph nodes; or through the innermost layer of the colon wall to the layer of tissue next to the innermost layer. Cancer has spread to four to six nearby lymph nodes.
    • In stage IIIB, cancer has spread through the muscle layer of the colon wall to the serosa outermost layer of the colon wall or has spread through the serosa to the tissue that lines the organs in the abdomen. Cancer has spread to one to three nearby lymph nodes or cancer cells have formed in tissue near the lymph nodes, or to the muscle layer or to the outermost layer of the colon wall. Cancer has spread to four to six nearby lymph nodes; or through the innermost layer of the colon wall to the layer of tissue next to the innermost layer, or to the muscle layer of the colon wall. Cancer has spread to seven or more nearby lymph nodes.
    • In stage IIIC, cancer has spread through the outermost layer of the colon wall to the tissue that lines the organs in the abdomen. Cancer has spread to four to six nearby lymph nodes; or through the muscle layer of the colon wall to the outermost layer of the colon wall or has spread through the outermost layer to the tissue that lines the organs in the abdomen. Cancer has spread to seven or more nearby lymph nodes, or through the outermost layer of the colon wall to nearby organs. Cancer has spread to one or more nearby lymph nodes or cancer cells have formed in tissue near the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV colon cancer is divided into stages IVA, IVB, and IVC.
    • Stage IVA: Cancer has spread to one area or organ that is not near the colon, such as the liver, lung, ovary, or a distant lymph node.
    • Stage IVB: Cancer has spread to more than one area or organ that is not near the colon, such as the liver, lung, ovary, or a distant lymph node.
    • Stage IVC: Cancer has spread to the tissue that lines the wall of the abdomen and may have spread to other areas or organs.

Genetic Testing for Colon Cancer

If you think you may be at an increased risk of developing colon cancer because of your genetics, the experts at Jefferson's Clinical Cancer Genetics Service provide genetic colon cancer risk assessment, genetic counseling and genetic testing.

Colon Cancer Treatment Options

Our colon cancer surgeons, medical oncologists, geneticists and radiologist work as a team to recommend a personalized treatment plan based on your cancer’s size, location, the stage of the cancer, whether or not the malignancy is recurrent and your overall state of health.

Our colorectal cancer specialists may recommend a combination of treatments including:

  • Surgery – Removing the affected malignant tumors and nearby lymph nodes. If the cancer is more advanced, surgeons may remove part or all of the colon or rectum.
  • Chemotherapy – Using anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells
  • Intensity-modulated Radiation Therapy – Also called IMRT, this therapy uses external energy to kill cancer cells
  • Targeted Drug Therapy – Using drugs that target specific defects that allow cancer to grow
  • Experimental Treatments – You may be eligible to receive experimental treatments through clinical trials conducted at Jefferson on an ongoing basis.

Why Jefferson for Colon Cancer Treatment?

Jefferson’s Colon and Rectal Cancer Center and the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson are your Philadelphia area resources for nationally-recognized oncology expertise. We’re one of only 70 National Cancer Institute NCI-designated Cancer Centers in the U.S., and we are ranked as one of the nation’s best hospitals for cancer treatment by U.S.News & World Report.

Through state-of-the-art screenings, research and clinical trials, our world-renowned researchers are pioneering new approaches to colon cancer treatments and designing effective cancer prevention strategies. At Jefferson, we not only offer our patients best-in-class colorectal cancer medical services, our compassionate care includes a colon cancer support program to meet your emotional and psychological needs, too.

Colon Cancer Clinical Trials

Colon cancer clinical trials are the best way patients can receive new therapies and procedures. To find out if a clinical trial might be right for you, ask your health care provider or contact the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center Clinical Research Management Office at 215-955-1661.

Next-Day Appointments Available

Call 1-800-JEFF-NOW (1-800-533-3669) to speak with a colorectal cancer specialist at Jefferson Health.

Next day appointments are not available for screenings.