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What You Should Know About Colorectal Cancer

Longmont United Hospital and the Hope Cancer Care Center believe in helping people become actively involved in monitoring their own health by providing exceptional health information and health care services. In recent years, the early detection of colorectal cancer has saved literally thousands of lives across the United States.

Colorectal cancer is one of the more common types of cancer diagnosed and treated at Longmont United Hospital and the Hope Cancer Care Center. It affects men and women equally.

The best news is that colorectal cancer is preventable. Through regular screenings, small growths in the colon can be detected and removed before they become cancerous. When detected early, colorectal cancer has a high cure rate. According to the National Institutes of Health, deaths due to colorectal cancer fell 25 percent for women and 13 percent for men in the last 20 years.

What is the Colon?

A part of the digestive system, the colon is the last part of the large intestine. The colon is divided into four sections: the ascending colon, the transverse colon, the descending colon and the sigmoid colon, which is closest to the rectum. The colon is a tube about 5 feet long through which body wastes pass on their way to being excreted through the rectum.

Colon cancer can form anywhere in the inner lining of the colon, and usually starts as a small non cancerous growth, called a polyp. Then, over time, these polyps can become cancerous.

Early Detection of Colorectal Cancer

You should be aware of the warning signs and risk factors for colorectal cancer, and that most often colorectal cancer has no symptoms in the early stages. Fecal occult blood tests and sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy continue to be the best ways to detect colorectal cancer and should be performed according to screening guidelines.

Diagnosing Colorectal Cancer

Fecal Occult Blood Test

The fecal occult blood test is a valuable diagnostic tool for detecting colorectal cancer. The test picks up small amounts of blood in the stool. If positive, it indicates that something in the digestive tract may need further investigation. You can have this test done in your physician's office. If you need a physician experienced in diagnosing cancer, try the Longmont United Hospital online Find a Physician tool.

Digital Rectal Exam

Sometimes masses in the rectum can be felt during a digital rectal exam (DRE). While not as sensitive as the fecal occult test, the exam is still useful in feeling tumors that may be growing. If you are 50 or older, you should have this digital exam done every year by your primary care physician.

Sigmoidoscopy or Colonoscopy

During a sigmoidoscopy, your physician uses a miniature scope inserted into the lower part of the bowel to examine the inside of last part of the colon for growths or abnormalities. Small growths, called polyps, can be removed quickly and without major surgery. Since polyps can become cancerous over time, removing them is the most important step in preventing the development of colon cancer. Removed polyps are tested to see if they are benign or malignant (cancerous).

A colonoscopy is essentially the same procedure, except the physician uses a longer tube to exam the entire colon.

Air Contrast Barium Enema (ACBE)

During this test, the patient is first given an enema containing barium. Then X-rays are taken, with the barium highlighting the inside of the colon. Sometimes air can be carefully inserted into the colon, making small lesions easier to see. This is called a double contrast barium enema. Only a double contrast barium enema is sensitive enough to be used for screening.


Ultrasound uses high frequency sound waves to create an image of a part of the body. Your physician may also perform a test called an endorectal ultrasound. A probe is inserted into the rectum to determine how large the tumor is, and whether it has spread. Tumors can require further testing through surgical biopsy.

Surgical Biopsy

Surgeons remove a sample of tissue from a tumor and send it to the pathologists for examination. Sometimes, if the lump is small enough, the surgeon can remove it completely during this procedure. Longmont United Hospital patients who need a surgical biopsy for colorectal cancer can be seen as outpatients in the Day Surgery Center.

Warning Signs

Discuss any changes you notice with your doctor. Some of these symptoms can be caused by a number of conditions, not necessarily cancer, that need to be checked by your physician. If you need a physician, click on the Find a Physician.

Changes to watch for include:

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Blood in or on the stool (bright red or dark)
  • A change in bowel habits
  • General discomfort: bloating, cramps
  • Constant tiredness
  • Unexplained weight loss
Risk Factors

Some risk factors you cannot change, but other risk factors can be controlled. Risk factors may include:

  • Age. Ninety percent of people with colorectal cancer are age 50 and older.
  • Personal or family history of colorectal cancer, polyps or inflammatory bowel disease
  • Physical inactivity
  • Diet. A high fat or low fiber diet may increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Estrogen replacement therapy (for women) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may reduce the risk.

More frequent exams may be advised for people with a genetic predisposition to cancer.

Screening Guidelines

Longmont United Hospital follows the guidelines of the American Cancer Society in recommending the following schedule for men and women age 50 and older:

Every year:

  • Annual fecal occult blood test
  • Digital rectal exam

Every five years:

  • Flexible Sigmoidoscopy or Colonoscopy

Every ten years:

  • Colonoscopy

Every five to ten years:

  • Air contrast barium enema
  • Colonoscopy