Colon Cancer (Colorectal Cancer)

  • Medical Author:
    Francis W. Nugent, MD

    Dr. F.W. Nugent is a medical oncologist specializing in gastrointestinal cancers with a special interest in pancreatic cancer. Dr. Nugent graduated from Middlebury College with a bachelors degree in religion before graduating from Albany Medical College. He presently serves as vice-chairman of medical oncology at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

View Colorectal (Colon) Cancer Slideshow Pictures

Quick GuideColorectal Cancer Pictures Slideshow: Understanding Cancer of the Colon

Colorectal Cancer Pictures Slideshow: Understanding Cancer of the Colon

What tests can be done to detect colon cancer?

When colon cancer is suspected, either a lower GI series (barium enema X-ray) or colonoscopy is performed to confirm the diagnosis and locate the tumor.

A barium enema involves taking X-rays of the colon and the rectum after the patient is given an enema with a white, chalky liquid containing barium. The barium outlines the large intestines on the X-rays. Tumors and other abnormalities appear as dark shadows on the X-rays. For more information, please read the Barium Enema article.

Colonoscopy is a procedure whereby a doctor inserts a long, flexible viewing tube into the rectum for the purpose of inspecting the inside of the entire colon. Colonoscopy is generally considered more accurate than barium enema X-rays, especially in detecting small polyps. If colon polyps are found, they usually are removed through the colonoscope and sent to the pathologist. The pathologist examines the polyps under the microscope to check for cancer. Colonoscopy is the best procedure to use when cancer of the colon is suspected. While the majority of the polyps removed through colonoscopes are benign, many are precancerous. Removal of precancerous polyps prevents the future development of colon cancer from these polyps.

Sigmoidoscopy is a procedure performed using a shorter flexible scope to examine just the left colon and rectum. It can be performed after a barium enema has raised questions about the left colon. It is more easily prepared for and performed than a complete colonoscopy, but has obvious limitations in terms of not being long enough to assess both the right and transverse colons. Polyp removal and cancer biopsy can be performed through the sigmoidoscope. 

Recently, "virtual colonoscopy" (computerized tomographic or CT colonography) has been utilized as a screening technique for colorectal cancer (Screening is not done in individuals in whom colorectal cancer is suspected. It is done only for asymptomatic individuals at average risk for colorectal cancer.). Virtual colonoscopy employs a CT scan using low doses of radiation with special software to visualize the inside of the colon and look for polyps or masses. The procedure typically involves a bowel preparation with laxatives and/or enemas (although not always) followed by a CT scan after air is introduced into the colon. Because no sedation is necessary, individuals can return to work or other activities upon completion of the test. Virtual colonoscopies appear to be equally able to detect larger polyps (over 1 centimeter in size) as regular colonoscopies. The virtual colonoscopy cannot be used to biopsy or remove tissue from the colon. A followup sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy must be done to accomplish that.

If cancerous growths are found during colonoscopy, small tissue samples (biopsies) can be obtained and examined under the microscope to determine if the polyp is cancerous. If colon cancer is confirmed by a biopsy, staging examinations are performed to determine whether the cancer has already spread to other organs. Since colorectal cancer tends to spread to the lungs and the liver, staging tests usually include CT scans of the lungs, liver, and abdomen. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans, a newer test which looks for the increased metabolic activity that is common in cancerous tissue, also are employed frequently to look for the spread of colon cancer to lymph nodes or other organs.

Sometimes, the doctor may obtain a "tumor marker" blood test called a carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) if there is a suspicion of cancer. CEA is a substance produced by some colon and rectal cancer cells as well as by some types of cancers. It is sometimes found in high levels in patients with colorectal cancer, especially when the disease has spread. It can serve as a useful test to follow if it is found to be elevated before the cancer is removed. However, not all patients with colorectal cancer will have an elevated CEA even if their cancer has spread. (Some colorectal cancers don't produce it.) Additionally, some patients without cancer can have an elevated CEA blood test. About 15% of smokers, for example, will have an elevated CEA without colon cancer. So the CEA is not used to diagnose colorectal cancer but rather to follow the effects of treatment of colorectal cancer in someone with a known history of the disease because, again, in some patients the amount of cancerous tissue correlates with the level of CEA.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/23/2016

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Cancer Report Newsletter

By clicking Submit, I agree to the MedicineNet's Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet's subscriptions at any time.

VIEW PATIENT COMMENTS
  • Colon Cancer - Diagnosis

    How was the diagnosis of your colon cancer established?

    Post View 27 Comments
  • Colon Cancer - Symptoms

    What symptoms and signs did you experience with colon cancer?

    Post View 29 Comments
  • Colon Cancer - Treatment

    What kind of treatment did you undergo for colon cancer?

    Post View 7 Comments

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors