Cancer of the colon is a highly treatable and often curable disease when localized to the bowel. Surgery is the primary form of treatment and results in cure in approximately 50% of the patients. Recurrence following surgery is a major problem and is often the ultimate cause of death.
Incidence and Mortality
Estimated new cases and deaths from colon cancer in the United States in 2016:
New cases: 95,270 (colon cancer only).
Deaths: 49,190 (colon and rectal cancers combined).
Groups that have a high incidence of colorectal cancer include those with hereditary conditions. Together, these groups account for 10% to 15% of colorectal cancers. These groups include the following:
Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC) or Lynch syndrome variants I and II.
A personal history of ulcerative colitis or Crohn colitis.[2,3]
More common conditions with an increased risk include the following:
A personal history of colorectal cancer or adenomas.
First-degree family history of colorectal cancer or adenomas.
A personal history of ovarian, endometrial, or breast cancer.[4,5]
These high-risk groups account for only 23% of all colorectal cancers. Limiting screening or early cancer detection to only these high-risk groups would miss the majority of colorectal cancers. (Refer to the PDQ summaries on Colorectal Cancer Screening and Colorectal Cancer Prevention for more information.)
Because of the frequency of the disease, ability to identify high-risk groups, slow growth of primary lesions, better survival of patients with early-stage lesions, and relative simplicity and accuracy of screening tests, screening for colon cancer should be a part of routine care for all adults aged 50 years and older, especially for those with first-degree relatives with colorectal cancer. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Colorectal Cancer Screening for more information.)
The prognosis of patients with colon cancer is clearly related to the following:
The degree of penetration of the tumor through the bowel wall.
The presence or absence of nodal involvement.
The presence or absence of distant metastases.
These three characteristics form the basis for all staging systems developed for this disease.
Other prognostic factors include the following:
Bowel obstruction and bowel perforation are indicators of poor prognosis.
Elevated pretreatment serum levels of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) have a negative prognostic significance.
Many other prognostic markers have been evaluated retrospectively for patients with colon cancer, though most, including allelic loss of chromosome 18q or thymidylate synthase expression, have not been prospectively validated.[9-18] Microsatellite instability, also associated with HNPCC, has been associated with improved survival independent of tumor stage in a population-based series of 607 patients younger than 50 years with colorectal cancer. Patients with HNPCC reportedly have better prognoses in stage-stratified survival analysis than patients with sporadic colorectal cancer, but the retrospective nature of the studies and possibility of selection factors make this observation difficult to interpret.
Treatment decisions depend on factors such as physician and patient preferences and the stage of the disease, rather than the age of the patient.[21-23]
Racial differences in overall survival (OS) after adjuvant therapy have been observed, without differences in disease-free survival, suggesting that comorbid conditions play a role in survival outcome in different patient populations.
Follow-up and Survivorship
Limited data and no level 1 evidence are available to guide patients and physicians about surveillance and management of patients after surgical resection and adjuvant therapy. The American Society of Clinical Oncology and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommend specific surveillance and follow-up strategies.[25,26]
Following treatment of colon cancer, periodic evaluations may lead to the earlier identification and management of recurrent disease.[27-30] The impact of such monitoring on overall mortality of patients with recurrent colon cancer, however, is limited by the relatively small proportion of patients in whom localized, potentially curable metastases are found. To date, no large-scale randomized trials have documented an OS benefit for standard, postoperative monitoring program.[31-35]
CEA is a serum glycoprotein frequently used in the management of patients with colon cancer. A review of the use of this tumor marker suggests the following:
A CEA level is not a valuable screening test for colorectal cancer because of the large numbers of false-positive and false-negative reports.
Postoperative CEA testing should be restricted to patients who would be candidates for resection of liver or lung metastases.
Routine use of CEA levels alone for monitoring response to treatment should not be recommended.
The optimal regimen and frequency of follow-up examinations are not well defined because the impact on patient survival is not clear and the quality of data is poor.[33-35]
Factors Associated with Recurrence
Diet and exercise
No prospective randomized trials have demonstrated an improvement in outcome with a specific diet or exercise regimen; however, cohort studies suggest that diet or exercise regimen may improve outcome. The cohort studies contain multiple opportunities for unintended bias, and caution is needed when using the data from them.
Two prospective observational studies were performed with patients enrolled on CALGB-89803 (NCT00003835), which was an adjuvant chemotherapy trial for patients with stage III colon cancer.[37,38] In this trial, patients in the lowest quintile of the Western dietary pattern compared with those patients in the highest quintile experienced an adjusted hazard ratio (HR) for disease-free survival of 3.25 (95% confidence interval [CI], 2.04–5.19; P< .001) and an OS of 2.32 (95% CI, 1.36–3.96; P < .001). Additionally, findings included that stage III colon cancer patients in the highest quintile of dietary glycemic load experienced an adjusted HR for OS of 1.76 (95% CI, 1.22–2.54; P < .001) compared with those in the lowest quintile. Subsequently, in the Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort, among 2,315 participants diagnosed with colorectal cancer, the degree of red and processed meat intake before diagnosis was associated with a higher risk of death (relative risk [RR], 1.29; 95% CI, 1.05–1.59; P = .03), but red meat consumption after diagnosis was not associated with overall mortality.[Level of evidence: 3iiA]
A meta-analysis of seven prospective cohort studies evaluating physical activity before and after a diagnosis of colorectal cancer demonstrated that patients who participated in any amount of physical activity before diagnosis had a RR of 0.75 (95% CI, 0.65–0.87; P < .001) for colorectal cancer-specific mortality compared with patients who did not participate in any physical activity. Patients who participated in a high amount of physical activity (vs. a low amount) before diagnosis had a RR of 0.70 (95% CI, 0.56–0.87; P = .002). Patients who participated in any physical activity (compared with no activity) after diagnosis had a RR of 0.74 (95% CI, 0.58–0.95; P = .02) for colorectal cancer-specific mortality. Those who participated in a high amount of physical activity (vs. a low amount) after diagnosis had a RR of 0.65 (95% CI, 0.47–0.92; P = .01).[Level of evidence: 3iiB]
A prospective cohort study examined the use of aspirin after a colorectal cancer diagnosis. Regular users of aspirin after a diagnosis of colorectal cancer experienced an HR of colon cancer-specific survival of 0.71 (95% CI, 0.65–0.97) and an OS of 0.79 (95% CI, 0.65–0.97).[Level of evidence: 3iiA] One study evaluated 964 patients with rectal or colon cancer from the Nurse’s Health Study and the Health Professional Follow-up Study. Among patients with PI3K-mutant colorectal cancer, regular use of aspirin was associated with an HR for OS of 0.54 (95% CI, 0.31–0.94; P = .01)[Level of evidence: 3iiiA]
Other PDQ summaries containing information related to colon cancer include the following:
American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures 2016. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2016. Available online.Exit Disclaimer Last accessed July 11, 2016.
Thorson AG, Knezetic JA, Lynch HT: A century of progress in hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome). Dis Colon Rectum 42 (1): 1-9, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
Smith RA, von Eschenbach AC, Wender R, et al.: American Cancer Society guidelines for the early detection of cancer: update of early detection guidelines for prostate, colorectal, and endometrial cancers. Also: update 2001--testing for early lung cancer detection. CA Cancer J Clin 51 (1): 38-75; quiz 77-80, 2001 Jan-Feb. [PUBMED Abstract]
Ransohoff DF, Lang CA: Screening for colorectal cancer. N Engl J Med 325 (1): 37-41, 1991. [PUBMED Abstract]
Fuchs CS, Giovannucci EL, Colditz GA, et al.: A prospective study of family history and the risk of colorectal cancer. N Engl J Med 331 (25): 1669-74, 1994. [PUBMED Abstract]
Winawer SJ: Screening for colorectal cancer. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology Updates 2(1): 1-16, 1987.
Steinberg SM, Barkin JS, Kaplan RS, et al.: Prognostic indicators of colon tumors. The Gastrointestinal Tumor Study Group experience. Cancer 57 (9): 1866-70, 1986. [PUBMED Abstract]
Filella X, Molina R, Grau JJ, et al.: Prognostic value of CA 19.9 levels in colorectal cancer. Ann Surg 216 (1): 55-9, 1992. [PUBMED Abstract]
McLeod HL, Murray GI: Tumour markers of prognosis in colorectal cancer. Br J Cancer 79 (2): 191-203, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
Jen J, Kim H, Piantadosi S, et al.: Allelic loss of chromosome 18q and prognosis in colorectal cancer. N Engl J Med 331 (4): 213-21, 1994. [PUBMED Abstract]
Lanza G, Matteuzzi M, Gafá R, et al.: Chromosome 18q allelic loss and prognosis in stage II and III colon cancer. Int J Cancer 79 (4): 390-5, 1998. [PUBMED Abstract]
Griffin MR, Bergstralh EJ, Coffey RJ, et al.: Predictors of survival after curative resection of carcinoma of the colon and rectum. Cancer 60 (9): 2318-24, 1987. [PUBMED Abstract]
Johnston PG, Fisher ER, Rockette HE, et al.: The role of thymidylate synthase expression in prognosis and outcome of adjuvant chemotherapy in patients with rectal cancer. J Clin Oncol 12 (12): 2640-7, 1994. [PUBMED Abstract]
Shibata D, Reale MA, Lavin P, et al.: The DCC protein and prognosis in colorectal cancer. N Engl J Med 335 (23): 1727-32, 1996. [PUBMED Abstract]
Bauer KD, Lincoln ST, Vera-Roman JM, et al.: Prognostic implications of proliferative activity and DNA aneuploidy in colonic adenocarcinomas. Lab Invest 57 (3): 329-35, 1987. [PUBMED Abstract]
Bauer KD, Bagwell CB, Giaretti W, et al.: Consensus review of the clinical utility of DNA flow cytometry in colorectal cancer. Cytometry 14 (5): 486-91, 1993. [PUBMED Abstract]
Sun XF, Carstensen JM, Zhang H, et al.: Prognostic significance of cytoplasmic p53 oncoprotein in colorectal adenocarcinoma. Lancet 340 (8832): 1369-73, 1992. [PUBMED Abstract]
Roth JA: p53 prognostication: paradigm or paradox? Clin Cancer Res 5 (11): 3345, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
Gryfe R, Kim H, Hsieh ET, et al.: Tumor microsatellite instability and clinical outcome in young patients with colorectal cancer. N Engl J Med 342 (2): 69-77, 2000. [PUBMED Abstract]
Watson P, Lin KM, Rodriguez-Bigas MA, et al.: Colorectal carcinoma survival among hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal carcinoma family members. Cancer 83 (2): 259-66, 1998. [PUBMED Abstract]
Iwashyna TJ, Lamont EB: Effectiveness of adjuvant fluorouracil in clinical practice: a population-based cohort study of elderly patients with stage III colon cancer. J Clin Oncol 20 (19): 3992-8, 2002. [PUBMED Abstract]
Chiara S, Nobile MT, Vincenti M, et al.: Advanced colorectal cancer in the elderly: results of consecutive trials with 5-fluorouracil-based chemotherapy. Cancer Chemother Pharmacol 42 (4): 336-40, 1998. [PUBMED Abstract]
Popescu RA, Norman A, Ross PJ, et al.: Adjuvant or palliative chemotherapy for colorectal cancer in patients 70 years or older. J Clin Oncol 17 (8): 2412-8, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
Dignam JJ, Colangelo L, Tian W, et al.: Outcomes among African-Americans and Caucasians in colon cancer adjuvant therapy trials: findings from the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project. J Natl Cancer Inst 91 (22): 1933-40, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
Meyerhardt JA, Mangu PB, Flynn PJ, et al.: Follow-up care, surveillance protocol, and secondary prevention measures for survivors of colorectal cancer: American Society of Clinical Oncology clinical practice guideline endorsement. J Clin Oncol 31 (35): 4465-70, 2013. [PUBMED Abstract]
Benson AB 3rd, Bekaii-Saab T, Chan E, et al.: Localized colon cancer, version 3.2013: featured updates to the NCCN Guidelines. J Natl Compr Canc Netw 11 (5): 519-28, 2013. [PUBMED Abstract]
Martin EW Jr, Minton JP, Carey LC: CEA-directed second-look surgery in the asymptomatic patient after primary resection of colorectal carcinoma. Ann Surg 202 (3): 310-7, 1985. [PUBMED Abstract]
Bruinvels DJ, Stiggelbout AM, Kievit J, et al.: Follow-up of patients with colorectal cancer. A meta-analysis. Ann Surg 219 (2): 174-82, 1994. [PUBMED Abstract]
Lautenbach E, Forde KA, Neugut AI: Benefits of colonoscopic surveillance after curative resection of colorectal cancer. Ann Surg 220 (2): 206-11, 1994. [PUBMED Abstract]
Khoury DA, Opelka FG, Beck DE, et al.: Colon surveillance after colorectal cancer surgery. Dis Colon Rectum 39 (3): 252-6, 1996. [PUBMED Abstract]
Safi F, Link KH, Beger HG: Is follow-up of colorectal cancer patients worthwhile? Dis Colon Rectum 36 (7): 636-43; discussion 643-4, 1993. [PUBMED Abstract]
Moertel CG, Fleming TR, Macdonald JS, et al.: An evaluation of the carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) test for monitoring patients with resected colon cancer. JAMA 270 (8): 943-7, 1993. [PUBMED Abstract]
Rosen M, Chan L, Beart RW Jr, et al.: Follow-up of colorectal cancer: a meta-analysis. Dis Colon Rectum 41 (9): 1116-26, 1998. [PUBMED Abstract]
Desch CE, Benson AB 3rd, Smith TJ, et al.: Recommended colorectal cancer surveillance guidelines by the American Society of Clinical Oncology. J Clin Oncol 17 (4): 1312, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
Benson AB 3rd, Desch CE, Flynn PJ, et al.: 2000 update of American Society of Clinical Oncology colorectal cancer surveillance guidelines. J Clin Oncol 18 (20): 3586-8, 2000. [PUBMED Abstract]
Clinical practice guidelines for the use of tumor markers in breast and colorectal cancer. Adopted on May 17, 1996 by the American Society of Clinical Oncology. J Clin Oncol 14 (10): 2843-77, 1996. [PUBMED Abstract]
Meyerhardt JA, Niedzwiecki D, Hollis D, et al.: Association of dietary patterns with cancer recurrence and survival in patients with stage III colon cancer. JAMA 298 (7): 754-64, 2007. [PUBMED Abstract]
Meyerhardt JA, Sato K, Niedzwiecki D, et al.: Dietary glycemic load and cancer recurrence and survival in patients with stage III colon cancer: findings from CALGB 89803. J Natl Cancer Inst 104 (22): 1702-11, 2012. [PUBMED Abstract]
McCullough ML, Gapstur SM, Shah R, et al.: Association between red and processed meat intake and mortality among colorectal cancer survivors. J Clin Oncol 31 (22): 2773-82, 2013. [PUBMED Abstract]
Je Y, Jeon JY, Giovannucci EL, et al.: Association between physical activity and mortality in colorectal cancer: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Int J Cancer 133 (8): 1905-13, 2013. [PUBMED Abstract]
Chan AT, Ogino S, Fuchs CS: Aspirin use and survival after diagnosis of colorectal cancer. JAMA 302 (6): 649-58, 2009. [PUBMED Abstract]
Liao X, Lochhead P, Nishihara R, et al.: Aspirin use, tumor PIK3CA mutation, and colorectal-cancer survival. N Engl J Med 367 (17): 1596-606, 2012. [PUBMED Abstract]
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