According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death when women and men are combined. However, it is often preventable and frequently treatable when detected early. 

Living a healthy lifestyle and regular guidelines from the American Cancer Society and the American College of Colon and Rectal Surgeons will help you reduce your risk of getting this disease. Learn more about colorectal cancer screening. 

Risk Factors

  • Increasing age (it is most common in people over age 50)
  • High-fat, high-calorie and low-fiber diets
  • Having certain types of polyps (benign growths) develop in the colon or rectum
  • Ulcerative colitis (a condition that causes inflammation of the lining of the colon)
  • Genetics — inherited genes that increase your risk
  • Women with a history of ovarian, uterine or breast cancer
  • First-degree relatives (parents, siblings, children) who have had colorectal cancer
  • Smoking
  • Large alcohol consumption
  • Lack of physical activity


  • A change in bowel habits including the new on-set of diarrhea, constipation or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
  • Blood in the stool
  • Stools that are narrower than usual
  • General abdominal discomfort (frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness or cramps)
  • Weight loss with no apparent reason
  • Constant fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Certain blood conditions, including anemia (low red blood cells

Treatment Options

Surgery is the most common treatment for all stages of colon cancer and the only treatment that can be curative when used alone.

  • Local Excision — If the cancer is detected early, the primary tumor and a zone of surrounding normal tissue can be removed using an endoscope/colonoscope or through a skin incision without cutting into the abdomen. The edges of healthy tissue are then sewn together usually with no permanent effect on the digestive system. If the cancer is contained within a polyp, this procedure is known as a polypectomy.
  • Colorectal Surgery Using the da Vinci® Robot — The George Washington University Hospital was the first in the region to use the da Vinci system for robotic colon and rectal surgery. This approach allows surgeons to more easily connect the two ends of the colon after the cancer has been removed. The procedure can be completed with a few tiny incisions, rather than the one long incision used in traditional open colon surgery.
  • Segmental Colon Resection (Colectomy) — Surgeons remove the cancer and a length of healthy tissue on either side of the abnormal area, as well as the nearby lymph nodes and blood vessels (hemicolectomy). Usually about one-fourth to one-third of the colon is removed, depending on the location of the cancer. In most cases, the remaining sections of the colon are reattached (anastomosis), and regular bowel function is restored.
  • Colostomy — During a colostomy, an opening is made from the bowel to the abdominal wall and an appliance (a special plastic bag with an adhesive faceplate) is placed over the area to collect the waste. A colostomy may be temporary or permanent, depending on the situation. The procedure is needed if a tumor is too advanced to be removed, is blocking the bowel or the surgeon is unable to reconnect remaining areas of the colon after resection.

Radiation Therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. After surgery, radiation can destroy small reaming deposits of cancer, which may not have been visible during the surgery. Also, if the size or location of the cancer makes surgery difficult, this treatment may be used to decrease tumor size. A regimen of daily radiation, is most commonly administered and is often combined with chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy involves the use of anticancer drugs, either taken orally or injected into a vein or artery, to kill cancer cells. It can increase the chance of survival by destroying cancer cells that cannot be removed by surgery. Chemotherapy also may help shrink tumors or relieve the symptoms of advanced colon cancer. Chemotherapy primarily is used to treat cancer that has metastasized, or spread, to other body organs, commonly the liver and lungs.