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Environmental Public Health Tracking: Colon and Rectal Cancer Data

Cancer is a term used for diseases where abnormal cells divide without control and can invade other tissues. Cancer is not just one disease, but many diseases. There are more than 100 different types of cancer.

Colon and rectal cancer, referred to as colorectal cancer, is one type of cancer. Review the answers to frequently asked questions below for more information about colorectal cancer.

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Answers to frequently asked questions

Colon and rectal cancers have many features in common and are referred to as colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer can develop in any part of the colon or rectum. Colorectal cancer typically develops slowly over several years. Before cancer develops, there are usually precancerous growths called polyps.

Colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths, P-01573b (PDF) in Wisconsin for men and women combined.

People with the following risk factors may be more likely than others to develop colorectal cancer:

  • Older age (90% of colorectal cancer cases are diagnosed in individuals ages 50 and older)
  • Family or personal history of colon and rectal cancers and/or polyps
  • Inherited genetic conditions
  • Personal history of chronic inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Lack of physical activity
  • A diet high in red or processed meat
  • Obesity
  • Long-term smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Very low intake of fruits and vegetables

More research is needed to definitively link colorectal cancer to environmental factors; however, at least one study demonstrated a significant increase in the incidence of colon cancer with accumulated ambient air pollution.

Some environmental exposures that are generally linked with cancer include air pollution and polluted drinking water.

Colorectal cancer is a disease preventable in up to 50% of patients by lifestyle modifications, including having a balanced diet, avoiding smoking and alcohol, and participating in moderate physical activity.

Early stage colorectal cancers typically do not have symptoms, so screening is necessary to detect these cancers at early stages. The American Cancer Society recommends screening beginning at age 50 for women and men who are at average risk of developing colorectal cancer. Individuals at increased risk should begin screening before age 50 and should discuss screening options with their health care provider.

Screening tests that detect and remove adenomatous polyps are the most reliable method of preventing colorectal cancer.

Last revised September 26, 2023