Colon Cancer: Catching It Early

Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States among men and women, and is expected to cause about 50,830 deaths during 2013. However, colon cancer is often highly treatable. If it’s found and treated early, while it’s small and before it has spread, the 5-year survival rate is about 90%. But because many people are not getting tested, only about 4 out of 10 are diagnosed at this early stage when treatment is most likely to be successful.

This infographic focuses on the benefits of catching colon cancer early, identifying the people at greatest risk for developing colon cancer, and the steps you can take to detect colon cancer early or even prevent it altogether.

Colon Cancer: Catching It Early

Despite substantial decreases in colon cancer death rates over the past two decades, it remains the third-deadliest cancer in the United States among men and women. If it’s found and treated early, however, the 5-year survival rate is 90%. Many more lives could be saved by understanding colon cancer risks, increasing screening rates, and making lifestyle changes.

The 5-year, survival rate is 90%, if colon cancer is found early, but only 39% of colon cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage, partly due to low screening rate.

Stages Of Colon Cancer

  • Polyp: Most colon cancers develop from these noncancerous growths
  • In Situ: Cancer has formed, but is not yet growing inside the colon or rectum walls
  • Local: Cancer is now growing in the colon or rectum walls; nearby tissue not affected
  • Regional: Growth beyond the colon or rectum walls and into tissue or lymph nodes
  • Distant: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body such as liver or lungs 

Who Gets Colon Cancer? 

Anyone can get colon cancer, but some groups are at increased risk.

Gender: Overall, colorectal cancer incidence and mortality rates are about 35% to 40% higher in men than in women. 

Age: Incidence and death rates for colorectal cancer increase with age. Overall, 90% of new cases and 94% of deaths occur in individuals 50 and older. The incidence rate of colorectal cancer is more than 15 times higher in adults 50 years and older than in those 20 to 49 years.

Race/Ethnicity: Colorectal cancer incidence and mortality rates are highest in African American men and women; incidence rates are 20% higher and mortality rates are about 45% higher than those in whites. Incidence and mortality rates among other major racial/ethnic groups are lower than those among whites.

What Can You Do About It

Reduce risk by managing your diet, weight and physical activity. 


  • Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
  • Get the recommended levels of calcium and vitamin D.
  • Limit intake of red and processed meats, fried foods and high-calorie fats.

Body Mass Index (BMI) 

  • Avoid obesity and weight gain around the midsection.
  • Maintain a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) of 18-25.

Physical Activity 

  • Increase intensity and amount of physical activity.


  • Avoid Tobacco
  • Avoid excess alcohol.

If you're 50 or older, talk to your doctor about getting tested.For average-risk individuals with no symptoms, screening should begin at age 50. If you are at increased risk or are experiencing symptoms, speak to your doctor right away.

Symptoms can include: Rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, dark- or black-colored stools, change in the shape of stool, lower stomach cramping, unnecessary urge to have a bowel movement, prolonged constipation or diarrhea, and unintentional weight loss. 

Pros and Cons of Different Types of Screening Tests 

Flexible Sigmoidoscopy: Slender tube is inserted through the rectum into the colon. Provides visual exam of the rectum and lower 1/3 of the colon. 


  • Fairly quick and safe
  • Sedation usually not used
  • Does not require a specialist


  • Does not view upper 2/3 of colon
  • Can't remove all polyps
  • May be some discomfort

Colonscopy: Direct exam of the colon and rectum. Polyps removed if present. Required for abnormal results from other tests


  • Can usually view entire colon
  • Can biopsy and remove polyps
  • Done every 10 years


  • Costs more than other tests
  • Higher risk than other tests
  • Full bowel preparation needed

Double-Contrast Barium Enema: Radiological exam of the colon. Barium sulfate is introduced through the rectum and spreads throughout the colon.


  • Can usually view entire colon
  • Relatively safe
  • No sedation needed


  • Can miss small polyps
  • Can't remove polyps during test
  • Full bowel preparation needed

CT Colonography: Detailed, cross-sectional, 2D or 3D views of the colon and rectum with a x-ray machine linked to a computer


  • Fairly quick and safe
  • Can usually view entire colon
  • No sedation needed


  • Still fairly new test
  • Can't remove polyps during test
  • Full bowel preparation needed

Fecal Occult Blood Test/Fecal Immunochemical Test: Can detect blood in stool caused by tumors or polyps. A kit is obtained from a health care provider. 


  • No direct risk to the colon
  • No bowel preparation
  • Sampling done at home


  • Colonscopy needed if abnormal
  • May miss some polyps/cancers
  • Should be done every year


100 years ago, we began the fight of a lifetime. Today, you can help us finish the fight. When you support the American Cancer Society, you join millions of others who are committed to the fight to end cancer. You help save lives in your community and around the world. Thank you for supporting these lifesaving efforts that get us closer to a world with less cancer and more birthdays.

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