Colorectal cancer, less formally known as bowel cancer, is a cancer characterized by neoplasia in the colon, rectum, or vermiform appendix. Colorectal cancer is clinically distinct from anal cancer, which affects the anus.
Colorectal cancers start in the lining of the bowel. If left untreated, it can grow into the muscle layers underneath, and then through the bowel wall. Most begin as a small growth on the bowel wall: a colorectal polyp or adenoma. These mushroom-shaped growths are usually benign, but some develop into cancer over time. Localized bowel cancer is usually diagnosed through colonoscopy.
Invasive cancers that are confined within the wall of the colon (TNM stages I and II) are often curable with surgery, For example, in England and Wales over 90% of patients diagnosed at this stage will survive the disease beyond 5 years. If left untreated, they spread to regional lymph nodes (stage III). In England and Wales, around 48% of patients diagnosed at this stage survive the disease beyond five years. Cancer that metastasizes to distant sites (stage IV) is usually not curable; approximately 7% of patients in England and Wales diagnosed at this stage survive beyond five years.
Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the world, but it is more common in developed countries. More than half of the people who die of colorectal cancer live in a developed region of the world. GLOBOCAN estimated that, in 2008, 1.23 million new cases of colorectal cancer were clinically diagnosed, and that this type of cancer killed more than 600,000 people.
The symptoms of colorectal cancer depend on the location of tumor in the bowel, and whether it has spread elsewhere in the body (metastasis). Most of the symptoms may occur in other diseases as well, and hence none of the symptoms mentioned here is diagnostic of colorectal cancer. Symptoms and signs are divided into local, constitutional (affecting the whole body) and metastatic (caused by spread to other organs).
If a tumor has caused chronic occult bleeding, iron deficiency anemia may occur; this may be experienced as fatigue, palpitations and noticed as pallor (pale appearance of the skin). Colorectal cancer may also lead to weight loss, generally due to a decreased appetite.
More unusual constitutional symptoms are an unexplained fever and one of several paraneoplastic syndromes. The most common paraneoplastic syndrome is thrombosis, usually deep vein thrombosis.
The WCRF panel report Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective finds the evidence "convincing" that alcoholic drinks increase the risk of colorectal cancer in men.
The NIAAA reports that: "Epidemiologic studies have found a small but consistent dose-dependent association between alcohol consumption and colorectal cancer even when controlling for fiber and other dietary factors. Despite the large number of studies, however, causality cannot be determined from the available data."
"Heavy alcohol use may also increase the risk of colorectal cancer" (NCI). One study found that "People who drink more than 30 grams of alcohol per day (and especially those who drink more than 45 grams per day) appear to have a slightly higher risk for colorectal cancer." Another found that "The consumption of one or more alcoholic beverages a day at baseline was associated with approximately a 70% greater risk of colon cancer."
One study found "While there was a more than twofold increased risk of significant colorectal neoplasia in people who drink spirits and beer, people who drank wine had a lower risk. In our sample, people who drank more than eight servings of beer or spirits per week had at least a one in five chance of having significant colorectal neoplasia detected by screening colonoscopy.".
Other research suggests "to minimize your risk of developing colorectal cancer, it's best to drink in moderation."
On its colorectal cancer page, the National Cancer Institute does not list alcohol as a risk factor; however, on another page it states, "Heavy alcohol use may also increase the risk of colorectal cancer".
Drinking may be a cause of earlier onset of colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer is a disease originating from the epithelial cells lining the colon or rectum of the gastrointestinal tract, most frequently as a result of mutations in the Wnt signaling pathway that artificially increase signaling activity. The mutations can be inherited or are acquired, and must probably occur in the intestinal crypt stem cell. The most commonly mutated gene in all colorectal cancer is the APC gene, which produces the APC protein. The APC protein is a "brake" on the accumulation of β-catenin protein; without APC, β-catenin accumulates to high levels and translocates (moves) into the nucleus, binds to DNA, and activates the transcription of genes that are normally important for stem cell renewal and differentiation but when inappropriately expressed at high levels can cause cancer. While APC is mutated in most colon cancers, some cancers have increased β-catenin because of mutations in β-catenin (CTNNB1) that block its degradation, or they have mutation(s) or other genes with function analogous to APC such as AXIN1, AXIN2, TCF7L2, or the Naked cuticle (Nkd) gene NKD1.
Beyond the defects in the Wnt-APC-beta-catenin signaling pathway, other mutations must occur for the cell to become cancerous. The p53 protein, produced by the TP53 gene, normally monitors cell division and kills cells if they have Wnt pathway defects. Eventually, a cell line acquires a mutation in the TP53 gene and transforms the tissue from an adenoma into an invasive carcinoma. (Sometimes the gene encoding p53 is not mutated, but another protective protein named BAX is.)
Other apoptotic proteins commonly deactivated in colorectal cancers are TGF-β and DCC (Deleted in Colorectal Cancer). TGF-β has a deactivating mutation in at least half of colorectal cancers. Sometimes TGF-β is not deactivated, but a downstream protein named SMAD is. DCC commonly has deletion of its chromosome segment in colorectal cancer.
Some genes are oncogenes - they are overexpressed in colorectal cancer. For example, genes encoding the proteins KRAS, RAF, and PI3K, which normally stimulate the cell to divide in response to growth factors, can acquire mutations that result in over-activation of cell proliferation. The chronological order of mutations is sometimes important, with a primary KRAS mutation generally leading to a self-limiting hyperplastic or borderline lesion, but if occurring after a previous APC mutation it often progresses to cancer. PTEN, a tumor suppressor, normally inhibits PI3K, but can sometimes become mutated and deactivated.
The pathology of the tumor is usually reported from the analysis of tissue taken from a biopsy or surgery. A pathology report will usually contain a description of cell type and grade. The most common colon cancer cell type is adenocarcinoma which accounts for 95% of cases. Other, rarer types include lymphoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
Cancers on the right side (ascending colon and cecum) tend to be exophytic, that is, the tumour grows outwards from one location in the bowel wall. This very rarely causes obstruction of feces, and presents with symptoms such as anemia. Left-sided tumours tend to be circumferential, and can obstruct the bowel much like a napkin ring.
Adenocarcinoma is a malignant epithelial tumor, originating from glandular epithelium of the colorectal mucosa. It invades the wall, infiltrating the muscularis mucosae, the submucosa and thence the muscularis propria. Tumor cells describe irregular tubular structures, harboring pluristratification, multiple lumens, reduced stroma ("back to back" aspect). Sometimes, tumor cells are discohesive and secrete mucus, which invades the interstitium producing large pools of mucus/colloid (optically "empty" spaces) - mucinous (colloid) adenocarcinoma, poorly differentiated. If the mucus remains inside the tumor cell, it pushes the nucleus at the periphery - "signet-ring cell." Depending on glandular architecture, cellular pleomorphism, and mucosecretion of the predominant pattern, adenocarcinoma may present three degrees of differentiation: well, moderately, and poorly differentiated.
Most colorectal cancer tumors are thought to be cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) positive. This enzyme is generally not found in healthy colon tissue, but is thought to fuel abnormal cell growth.
Most colorectal cancers arise from adenomatous polyps. These lesions can be detected and removed during colonoscopy. Studies show this procedure would decrease by > 80% the risk of cancer death, provided it is started by the age of 50, and repeated every 5 or 10 years.
The comparison of colorectal cancer incidence in various countries strongly suggests that sedentarity, overeating (i.e., high caloric intake), and perhaps a diet high in meat (red or processed) could increase the risk of colorectal cancer. In contrast, a healthy body weight, physical fitness, and good nutrition decreases cancer risk in general. Accordingly, lifestyle changes could decrease the risk of colorectal cancer as much as 60-80%.
More than 200 agents, including the above cited phytochemicals, and other food components like calcium or folic acid (a B vitamin), and NSAIDs like aspirin, are able to decrease carcinogenesis in pre-clinical development models: Some studies show full inhibition of carcinogen-induced tumours in the colon of rats. Other studies show strong inhibition of spontaneous intestinal polyps in mutated mice (Min mice). Chemoprevention clinical trials in human volunteers have shown smaller prevention, but few intervention studies have been completed today. The "chemoprevention database" shows the results of all published scientific studies of chemopreventive agents, in people and in animals.
A scientific review undertaken by the National Cancer Institute found that vitamin D was beneficial in preventing colorectal cancer, which showed an inverse relationship with blood levels of 80 nmol/L or higher associated with a 72% risk reduction compared with lower than 50 nmol/L. A possible mechanism is inhibition of Hedgehog signal transduction.
The treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. When colorectal cancer is caught at early stages (with little spread), it can be curable. However, when it is detected at later stages (when distant metastases are present), it is less likely to be curable.
Surgery remains the primary treatment, while chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy may be recommended depending on the individual patient's staging and other medical factors.
Because colon cancer primarily affects the elderly, it can be a challenge to determine how aggressively to treat a particular patient, especially after surgery. Clinical trials suggest "otherwise fit" elderly patients fare well if they have adjuvant chemotherapy after surgery, so chronological age alone should not be a contraindication to aggressive management.