Skip to Main Content

For further information, see CMDT Part 39-15: Colorectal Cancer

Key Features

Essentials of Diagnosis

  • Personal or family history of adenomatous or serrated polyps or colorectal cancer are important risk factors

  • Symptoms or signs depend on tumor location

  • Proximal colon: fecal occult blood, anemia

  • Distal colon: change in bowel habits, hematochezia

  • Diagnosis established with colonoscopy

General Considerations

  • Almost all colon cancers are adenocarcinomas

  • Most colorectal cancers arise from malignant transformation of an adenomatous polyp (tubular, tubulovillous, or villous adenoma) or serrated polyp (traditional serrated adenoma, or sessile serrated adenoma, or less commonly, hyperplastic polyp)

  • Up to 5% of colorectal cancers are caused by inherited autosomal dominant germline mutations resulting in polyposis syndromes or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome)

  • Risk factors

    • Age

    • History of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps

    • Family history of colorectal cancer

    • Inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohn colitis)

    • Diets rich in fats and red meat

    • Race (higher risk in blacks than in whites)


  • Second leading cause of death due to malignancy in the United States

  • Colorectal cancer will develop in 4.2% of Americans and has a 5-year survival rate of 65%

  • In 2019, there were an estimated 145,600 new cases of colorectal cancer in the United States, with an estimated 51,020 deaths

  • Between 1996 and 2010, mortality has decreased by 46%

Clinical Findings

Symptoms and Signs

  • Adenocarcinomas grow slowly and may be asymptomatic

  • Right-sided colon cancers cause

    • Iron deficiency anemia

    • Fatigue

    • Weakness from chronic blood loss

  • Left-sided colon cancers cause

    • Obstructive symptoms

    • Colicky abdominal pain

    • Change in bowel habits

    • Constipation alternating with loose stools

    • Stool streaked with blood

  • Rectal cancers cause

    • Rectal tenesmus

    • Urgency

    • Recurrent hematochezia

  • Physical examination usually normal, except in advanced disease

  • Hepatomegaly suggests metastatic spread

Differential Diagnosis

  • Diverticulosis or diverticulitis

  • Hemorrhoids

  • Adenomatous polyps

  • Ischemic colitis

  • Inflammatory bowel disease

  • Irritable bowel syndrome

  • Infectious colitis

  • Iron deficiency due to other cause


Laboratory Tests

  • Complete blood count may reveal iron deficiency anemia

  • Elevated liver biochemical tests, particularly the serum alkaline phosphatase, are suspicious for metastatic disease

  • Fecal occult blood or fecal immunochemical tests positive

  • Combination fecal DNA panel and fecal immunochemical test (FIT) for stool hemoglobin ("Cologuard") positive

    • Sensitivity for colorectal cancer of "Cologuard" was 92.3% compared to 73.8% for FIT

    • Sensitivity for large (> 1 cm) adenomas or serrated polyps of "Cologuard" was 42.4% compared to 23.8% for FIT

  • Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) level should normalize after complete surgical resection; persistently elevated levels suggest the presence of persistent disease and warrant further evaluation

Imaging Studies

  • CT colonography ("virtual colonoscopy") is performed for initial diagnosis, if colonoscopy not available

  • Barium enema is no ...

Pop-up div Successfully Displayed

This div only appears when the trigger link is hovered over. Otherwise it is hidden from view.