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  • Understanding the Different Types of Colon Cancer: A Comprehensive Overview

Colon cancer, a common and lethal disease, often lurks in the shadows of public awareness. However, understanding its many forms, or types of colon cancer, how they grow, and how they impact our bodies, can empower us to take control of our health. This knowledge could mean the difference between early detection and late-stage discovery. So, let’s explore this complex topic together.

Key Takeaways

  • Colon cancer is classified according to its location and cell type, with adenocarcinomas being the most common form.

  • Polyps are precursors to colon cancer and regular screening is essential for prevention of progression.

  • Risk factors such as age, obesity, health conditions & genetic mutations can increase an individual’s likelihood of developing colon cancer. Seek medical advice if persistent symptoms present.

Understanding Colon Cancer and Its Variants

Illustration of healthy cells in the colon and rectum

An introduction colorectal cancer provides is that it is a disease commonly called colon cancer and also called colorectal cancer, which develops in the colon or rectum, vital components of the digestive system. The large intestine or colon, a muscular tube that stretches approximately 5 feet, carries out the essential function of absorbing water and nutrients from digested foods while also facilitating the processing of waste material.

One might wonder how the colon, such a vital organ, becomes a breeding ground for cancer. It all starts with changes that occur at the cellular level. Alterations in cellular DNA are the primary driver behind the onset of colon and rectal cancer. These genetic changes prompt healthy cells to undergo rapid proliferation and evade programmed cell death, a process that maintains a balance in our body. This abnormal growth can lead to the formation of tumors within the colon or rectum, marking the potential onset of malignancy.

In this delicate balance between life and death, the cells lining our colon bear significant influence. Among these cells are the gland cells that produce mucus to protect and lubricate the interior of the colon and rectum. When these cells undergo genetic changes, adenomatous polyps, a type of growth that can develop into cancer, are formed. The wide distribution of these cells throughout the colon and rectum leads to a higher incidence of adenocarcinoma, a common form of colon cancer.

The colon is divided into several sections:

  • The ascending colon

  • The transverse colon

  • The descending colon

  • The sigmoid colon

Each of these sections can be a site of origin for different types of colon cancers. The location, combined with the type of cells from which the cancer originates, determines the classification of the cancer.

Classifying Colon Cancers: The Main Types

The large bowel or colon is a diverse landscape where various types of cancer can develop. The classification of colon cancer is based on the location in the bowel and the type of cell it originates from. This includes:

  • Adenocarcinomas

  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumors

  • Carcinoid tumors

  • Lymphomas

  • Sarcomas

Adenocarcinomas, the most prevalent form of colon cancer, originate from gland cells that produce mucus to protect and lubricate the interior of the colon and rectum. The wide distribution of these cells throughout the colon leads to a higher incidence of adenocarcinomas compared to other types. There are also various sub-types of adenocarcinomas, including signet ring and mucinous adenocarcinomas, which may have a poorer prognosis compared to other subtypes.

Adenocarcinomas: The Predominant Form

Adenocarcinomas, the most common type of colon cancer, originate in gland cells located in the lining of the bowel wall. These cells produce mucus, a slippery substance that aids in the lubrication and protection of the colon. Among the various growths that can develop in the colon, adenomatous polyps stand out as they can further develop into adenocarcinomas.

Adenocarcinomas account for approximately 90.2% of all colon cancers, also known as colorectal cancers. To diagnose this predominant form of colon cancer, medical professionals employ a range of tests, such as:

  • Colonoscopy

  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy

  • Computed tomography colonography

  • Gene tests

These tests can help determine if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, a crucial factor in deciding the treatment approach, as immune system cells play a significant role in this process.

Adenocarcinomas can be further categorized into various subtypes, including classical adenocarcinoma (CA), mucinous adenocarcinoma (MAC), and signet ring cell carcinoma (SRCC). Each subtype has unique characteristics and can impact the prognosis and treatment approach differently. For instance, inflammatory bowel disease can increase the risk of developing colon cancer.

The progression of adenocarcinomas in colon cancer generally unfolds over a timeframe of 10-20 years. It begins with early premalignant lesions and culminates in the development of malignant cancer. These cells stem from mucus-producing cells in the colon and rectum, undergoing mutations and giving rise to polyps, which may eventually progress to cancer.

Rare Variants of Colon Cancer

While adenocarcinomas are the most common form of colon cancer, there are also rare variants that deserve our attention. These include melanoma, sarcomas, and lymphomas. The introduction of colorectal cancer screening programs has helped in the early detection and treatment of these rare types.

Sarcomas, a type of cancer that develops in the supportive tissues of the body, such as bone or muscle, also contribute to the overall incidence of colorectal cancers. An example of this is leiomyosarcomas, which originate in smooth muscles and are sometimes detected in the colon. It’s important to note that the treatment for sarcomas differs from the treatment for adenocarcinomas of the bowel, although specific approaches can vary based on the individual case.

Stages and Grades of Colon Cancer Cells

As with many other types of cancer, colon cancer also has different stages and grades that indicate the growth rate and severity of the disease. The classification of bowel cancer cells ranges from 1 to 4 based on their grades. Low-grade cells exhibit slow growth, suggesting a less aggressive form of cancer, whereas high-grade cells demonstrate rapid growth and often signify a more aggressive disease.

While it is vital to grasp the growth rate of cancer cells, comprehending the spread of colorectal cancer in the body carries equal importance. Colorectal cancer has the potential to disseminate from the innermost layer of the colon or rectum to the outer layers. It can infiltrate blood vessels and lymph vessels, allowing it to migrate to adjacent lymph nodes or remote areas of the body, including the ascending colon.

This potential to spread is what makes colorectal cancer particularly dangerous. However, with regular screening and early detection, the spread of cancer can be prevented or at least slowed down, providing better treatment options and prognosis for the patient.

Polyps: Precursors to Colon Cancer

Photo of a colonoscopy procedure

Most colon cancers commonly initiate from polyps, small growths on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Over time, these polyps, particularly adenomatous polyps, have the potential to develop into cancer. Familial adenomatous polyposis, a hereditary condition, causes numerous polyps to form in the colon and rectum, increasing the risk of colon cancer.

The colon commonly harbors various types of colon polyps, including:

  • Tubular adenomas

  • Villous adenomas

  • Inflammatory polyps

  • Hyperplastic polyps

  • Serrated polyps

Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis, can increase the risk of developing colon cancer.

Polyps in the colon develop internally, starting as nonneoplastic growths that are typically benign. Over time, these growths can become neoplastic, with the potential to become cancerous. The growth rate of polyps can vary, with some experiencing approximately 20% volume change per year. Regular screening and removal are crucial in preventing the progression to colon cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends that individuals at average risk for colorectal cancer commence regular screening at the age of 45. However, individuals with an elevated risk, such as those with a family history of colon cancer, should consider initiating colon cancer screening at an earlier age.

Risk Factors and Genetic Links

Illustration of genetic mutations linked to colon cancer

Several factors can escalate the risk of developing colon cancer. These factors should be taken into consideration for prevention and early detection. Prominent among these are:

  • Advancing age: By the age of 50, one in four individuals may develop polyps, which serve as precursors to colon cancer.

  • Obesity: Obesity contributes to chronic inflammation and hormone imbalances that can facilitate cancer growth.

  • Overall health conditions: Other health conditions can also increase the risk of colon cancer.

Our genetics also play a significant role in our risk of developing colon cancer. If an immediate family member such as a parent, sibling, or child has been diagnosed with the disease, it elevates the likelihood of developing colon cancer during one’s lifetime.

Certain genetic mutations are associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. These include:

  • Mutations in DNA repair genes such as MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, PMS2, and EPCAM

  • Chromosomal losses in APC, DCC/MADH2/MADH4, and TP53

  • Activating mutations in the PIK3CA gene

Inherited genetic mutations like these can greatly increase the likelihood of developing colorectal cancers.

Recognizing these risk factors and genetic links empowers us to take preventative measures against colon cancer. Regular screenings, lifestyle modifications, and in some cases, genetic counseling, can help manage these risks.

Signs and Symptoms: When to Seek Medical Advice

Photo of a person experiencing symptoms of colon cancer

Being aware of the signs and symptoms of colon cancer is fundamental for its early detection and efficacious treatment. The prevalent symptoms of colon cancer include fatigue, mild abdominal discomfort, and other nonspecific symptoms that may resemble those of other medical conditions.

As the disease progresses from early to late stages, symptoms become more pronounced and specific. Early-stage symptoms may encompass alterations in bowel habits, such as increased occurrences of diarrhea or constipation, rectal bleeding or presence of blood in the stool, and persistent discomfort in the abdominal region. As the disease progresses to the late stages, symptoms may manifest as reduced appetite, early satiety, fatigue, fever, pruritus, abdominal pain, edema in the lower extremities, weight loss, and jaundice.

It’s crucial to consult a medical professional if you experience persistent symptoms that cause concern, such as alterations in bowel habits, rectal bleeding or presence of blood in the stool, and continual discomfort or abdominal pain. Early detection can significantly impact the treatment outcomes and prognosis of colorectal cancer.

Prevention and Early Detection Strategies

Illustration of prevention and early detection strategies for colon cancer

As the saying goes, ‘Prevention is better than cure,’ and this is particularly relevant in the context of colon cancer. Individuals with an average risk of colorectal cancer should commence screening at approximately 45 years of age. However, individuals with an elevated risk, such as those with a family history of colon cancer, should contemplate initiating colon cancer screening at an earlier age.

Before undergoing colon cancer screening, it’s important to engage in discussions with your healthcare team to consider your options. These discussions can help you understand:

  • the benefits and risks associated with different screening methods

  • the recommended age to start screening

  • the frequency of screening

  • any specific considerations based on your personal medical history

These discussions will help you make an informed choice about the best screening method for you.

Adopting healthy habits can also aid in reducing the likelihood of developing colorectal cancer. This includes:

  • Adhering to a nutritious diet

  • Engaging in regular physical activity

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Avoiding tobacco

  • Limiting alcohol consumption

Medication can also play a role in preventing colon cancer. The consistent use of aspirin or aspirin-like medications has been associated with a decreased risk of polyps and colorectal cancer. However, the regular use of aspirin may pose potential risks, such as ulcers and bleeding in the digestive system, and should be discussed with a healthcare professional.

Treatment Options Across Different Cancer Types

We now turn our attention to the range of treatment options available for different types of colon cancer. Surgery plays a pivotal role in the treatment of various types of colorectal cancer and encompasses a spectrum of procedures, from minimally invasive interventions like polyp removal during colonoscopy to more extensive surgeries such as colectomy, which involves partial or complete removal of the colon.

Chemotherapy also plays a significant role in the treatment of colon cancer. It is frequently utilized as a neoadjuvant treatment to reduce the size of the tumor prior to surgery and as an adjuvant treatment following surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells. The most commonly prescribed chemotherapy drug for colon cancer is 5-fluorouracil (5-FU).

Targeted therapies are another major treatment option for colorectal cancer. These include medications like cetuximab and panitumumab, which specifically target the EGFR protein. These medications are monoclonal antibodies designed to impede the signals that facilitate the growth of cancer cells. Clinical evidence has demonstrated that they induce milder side effects in comparison to conventional chemotherapy agents.


In conclusion, understanding colon cancer, its various types, stages, and grades, risk factors, and the signs and symptoms can empower us to take charge of our health. Regular screenings, adopting healthy lifestyle habits, and staying informed about our family history can aid in early detection and effective treatment. Remember, knowledge is power. And in the fight against colon cancer, it could be a lifesaver.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where is the first place colon cancer spreads?

Colon cancer spreads most commonly to the liver, but can also spread to the lungs, brain, peritoneum (lining of the abdominal cavity) or distant lymph nodes. It initially begins in the inner layers of the colon and spreads through the muscle wall.

Which type of colon cancer is most common?

Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of colon cancer, forming in the lining of the colon or rectum from cells that secrete proteins. Carcinoids, which start in cells that produce hormones in the large intestine, are also present but tend not to cause symptoms.

How long can you live with untreated colon cancer?

Untreated colon cancer can lead to a median survival of two years, with one-year and two-year survival rates of 65% and 25%, respectively. Quality of life is also satisfactory.

What is the prognosis for adenocarcinoma colon cancer?

The prognosis for adenocarcinoma colon cancer is positive, with a 5-year relative survival rate of 64.4%. If the cancer has spread to surrounding tissues or organs and/or the regional lymph nodes, the survival rate is 74%. If it has spread to distant parts of the body, the rate is 17%.

What are the three types of colon cancer?

Colon cancer is typically classified into three distinct categories: Adenocarcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, and colon cancer. Each type of cancer requires a tailored treatment plan.

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