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Colon Cancer In Seniors

Ken Teegardin Written by Ken Teegardin
SeniorLiving.Org Expert on Chief Editor | Caregiver

Colorectal (colon or rectal) cancers start as a polyp or growth of tissue in the lining that grows into the colon or rectum. A polyp called an adenoma can be become cancer unless removed.

Colon Cancer In Seniors

Over 90% of colorectal cancer cases are in people age 50 or older. It’s the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the U.S. You should be tested for colorectal cancer when you turn 50.

In 2011, The American Cancer Society expects 101,700 new cases of colon cancer and 39,510 new cases of rectal cancer. These are expected to cause 49,380 deaths.

However, the death rate over the last 20 years has been dropping. Why? Polyps are found in screening and removed before they become cancerous. And treatment for colorectal cancer has improved. Today, there are over 1 million colorectal cancer survivors in the U.S.

Still, colorectal cancer continues to affect the senior living community more than any other.

Causes of Colorectal Cancer

While medical experts don’t know the exact causes, there are certain risk factors. Having these risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll get colorectal cancer. Some people with none of the factors still get the cancer.

Risks You Can’t Control

Age- 90% of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer are age 50 or older.

Personal history of polyps- If you’ve had adenomas polyps in the past, your risk of developing colorectal cancer is increased. If you’ve had the polyps removed, you have a higher risk of developing new cancers in the rectum or colon.

History of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) - IBD or Crohn’s disease is an inflamed colon over a long period. People with these diseases develop dysplasia, which are abnormal cells in the lining of the colon or rectum. These cells can turn cancerous.

IBD is different from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS does not increase your risk.

Family history of colorectal cancer- About 1 and 5 people who develop the disease have a family member(s) who have had the disease.

Risks You Can Control

The following lifestyle factors have been linked to colorectal cancer.

A diet high in red meats (beef) and processed meats (hotdogs) can increase your risk. Also, cooking meats at high temperatures (frying, grilling) creates chemicals that could increase your risk, although this connection is still unclear.

Physical inactivity increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer. Exercising regularly may help reduce your risk.

Obesity increases your risk of developing the cancers. The link appears to be stronger in men. Control your weight with a healthy diet and regular exercise.

Long-term smokers are more likely than non-smokers to develop colorectal cancer. Swallowing smoke saliva can cause digestive system cancers.

Alcohol abuse has been linked to colorectal cancer. Some experts think it’s because heavy drinkers have low levels in folic acid in the body.

Those with Type 2 diabetes have an increased risk in developing colorectal cancer.

Detecting Colorectal Cancer

Screening tests are used to find potential colorectal cancers before they become serious. Here are the most common screening tests.

A flexible sigmoidoscopy (flex-sig) is a 2 foot long lighted tube that is inserted into the lower part of the colon through the rectum. It lets the doctor look for polyps. However, only half the colon can be seen. The test lasts about 20 minutes and you won’t need to be sedated.

A colonoscope (colonoscopy) is longer than the flex-sig and allows a doctor to see the entire colon. With the colonoscope, a doctor can remove polyps or take tissue samples for a biopsy. The test lasts about 30 minutes. You’ll be mildly sedated.

A virtual colonoscopy (CT colonography)is non-invasive. It’s like a sophisticated x-ray. You lie on a table while a CT scanner takes pictures as it rotates around you. The images form a 3-D picture inside your colon and rectum.

Colorectal Treatment

The four main types of colorectal cancer treatment are:

1) Surgery

2) Radiation therapy

3) Chemotherapy

4) TroVax, a cancer vaccine


It’s no secret that colorectal cancer affects the senior living communities more than any others. So take the stress out of daily living by getting colorectal cancer screenings when you turn 50. If you don’t like the idea of colonoscopy, try the virtual colonoscopy. It’s non-invasive and will give you the same piece of mind.

For tips on healthy living, see the article "Aging Well: The Choice Is Ours."

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