What is Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer is a disease in which cancerous cells form in the wall of the large intestine (colon) – the part of your digestive system that absorbs water and turns food waste into stool.
Here’s how it usually starts: the cells that line the colon can sometimes become abnormal and start to divide rapidly, forming benign growths called polyps
- Over time, as the polyps grow some of them turn malignant or cancerous
- These cancers can grow into the wall of the colon and spread to other parts of the body
- Depending on the amount of spread, colon cancer is assigned a number from 0 to 4 (called staging).
Caused by a mix of genetic and environmental factors, colon cancer can affect people of all ages, but is most common after age 50. While most colon cancers are not hereditary, you may have a genetic susceptibility if several of your relatives have been affected or if they got the disease before age 60.
Every year, about 23,000 Canadians are diagnosed with colon cancer and 9,000 will die of the disease. This makes colon cancer the third-most common cancer – behind prostate and breast cancer – and second-most common cause of cancer deaths in the country. For this reason everyone should participate in a provincial/territorial colon cancer screening program as soon as you turn 50 or earlier if your risk profile suggests an earlier start. Such a program ensures you’ll be tested and retested at the appropriate intervals and could save your life.
Can I prevent colon cancer?
Good communication with your doctor is an important part of managing your digestive health, regardless of your diagnosis.
More than 90 per cent of colon cancer cases occur in people over 50, which makes age the biggest risk factor for the disease. Because many people experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease, the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation recommends that all people over 50 get screened. You should also get screened if you have other risk factors that make you more likely to get the disease.