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In the US in 2005, approximately 72,000 men and 69,000 women were diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Of those diagnosed more than 50,000 men and women combined die each year from the disease.

The statistical rates for people contracting and dying from colorectal cancer vary by race and ethnicity, with rates higher in African American as a whole in both areas.

What is Colon (Colorectal) Cancer?

The term colorectal cancer is a term which refers to cancer which has developed in the colon or rectum.  These types of cancers are sometimes referenced separately as colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on point of origin. 

When colorectal cancer spreads to locations outside of the colon or rectum, it is called metastatic colorectal cancer.  Colorectal cancer most often spreads into nearby lymph nodes and into the liver.

What Are the Main Risks for Colon Cancer?

Medical science has not yet uncovered the exact causes of colorectal cancer, and physicians are at a loss as to explain why the disease develops in one person and not another.  It is clear however, that cancer is not contagious and does not spread from person to person.  Research has indicated that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop colorectal cancer. 

Research studies have found that the following risk factors are associated with colorectal cancer:

Over the age of 50:  colorectal cancer is more likely to develop in people as they age.  More than 90% of people with the disease are diagnosed past the age of 50; the median age of diagnosis is 72 years old.

Colorectal polyps:  polyps are growths that occur on the inner wall of the rectum or colon.  Polyps are commonly found in people over the age of 50 years old.  Most are benign (non-cancerous), however some polyps can become malignant.  Locating and removing polyps can greatly reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer in some people.

Family history of colorectal cancer:  having a close relative (parent, brother, sister, grandparent or child) with a history of colorectal cancer predisposes a person’s likelihood of developing colorectal cancer.  If the relative had colorectal cancer at a young age or if many family members had the disease, it greatly increases the risk factors.

Genetic alterations:  changes in certain genes exponentially increases the risk of a person developing colorectal cancer: 

  • Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC):  the most common of inherited colorectal cancers and accounts for around 2-3% of all cases; average age of diagnosis is 44 years old.  
  • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP):  rare inherited condition in which hundreds of polyps form in the rectum and colon.  Caused by changes in the APC gene, unless the disease is treated, it can lead to colorectal cancer developing by the age of 40.  This form accounts for less than 1% of all cases of colorectal cancer.

Personal history of cancer:  if a person has already had colorectal cancer, the risk for developing a second case is much higher.  For women who have had cancer of the ovaries, uterus (endometrial) or breast, there is a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s Disease:  a person who has a chronic inflammatory disease of the colon for many years is at an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Diet:  research suggests that a diet high in fat and low in calcium, folate and fiber may increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer.  There have also been studies which indicate people who observe a diet low in fruits and vegetables have a higher risk of colorectal cancer.  Results from diet studies do not always concur and more research is needed to better understand how dietary habits affect colorectal cancer risks.

Cigarette smoking:  a person who smokes cigarettes might be at an increased risk for developing rectal/colon polyps and colorectal cancer.

Because a person who has previously had colorectal cancer can develop the disease for a second time, it is important to observe regular medical check-ups and follow the advice a physician recommends.  A physician may be able to suggest ways to reduce certain risk factors and plan an appropriate treatment and follow-up care plan.

Prevention Tips for Colorectal Cancer

In 1999, the Harvard Medical Center released a research report which indicated the importance dietary and lifestyle habits have on colorectal cancer.  Since that time, more research has shown conclusively that around 50% of all colorectal cancers can be prevented through lifestyle changes and early screening practices.

Tips for preventing colorectal cancer:

  • Diet:  a change in the diet can significantly reduce a person’s chances of developing colorectal cancer.  The medical community advocates a high fiber diet, rich in fresh fruits and vegetables as a way of preventing colorectal cancer.
  • Being overweight:  maintaining a healthy body weight is important to overall quality of health and can help prevent the development of certain types of cancers.
  • Limit consumption of red meat and saturated fats.
  • Exercise five days per week and for approximately 30 minutes per session.
  • Avoid alcohol and cigarettes.
  • Regular screening after the age of 50: this can greatly reduce the risk of a person dying from colon cancer by more than 30%.


There is currently ongoing research in the area of colorectal cancer.  The medical community is always looking for ways to prevent colorectal cancer, as well as ways to improve screening and diagnostic methods and improve treatments.
What is known is early screening and prevention plays an integral role in patient outcome and mortality rates from colorectal cancer.  With the most advanced surgical and medical therapies available, a person maximizes their chances of having the best possible outcome.  Colorectal cancer when caught early is completely treatable and curable.