What Is Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal cancer starts in the colon or the rectum. These cancers can also be called colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where they start. Colon cancer and rectal cancer are often grouped together because they have many features in common.

Cancer starts when cells in the body start to grow out of control. To learn more about how cancers start and spread, see What Is Cancer?

The colon and rectum

To understand colorectal cancer, it helps to know about the normal structure and function of the colon and rectum.

The colon and rectum make up the large intestine (or large bowel), which is part of the digestive system, also called the gastrointestinal (GI) system (see illustration below).

Most of the large intestine is made up of the colon, a muscular tube about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long. The parts of the colon are named by which way the food is traveling through them.  

  • The first section is called the ascending colon. It starts with a pouch called the cecum, where undigested food is comes in from the small intestine. It continues upward on the right side of the abdomen (belly).
  • The second section is called the transverse colon. It goes across the body from the right to the left side.
  • The third section is called the descending colon because it descends (travels down) on the left side.
  • The fourth section is called the sigmoid colon because of its “S” shape. The sigmoid colon joins the rectum, which then connects to the anus. 

The ascending and transverse sections together are called the proximal colon. The descending and sigmoid colon are called the distal colon.

How do the colon and rectum work?

The colon absorbs water and salt from the remaining food matter after it goes through the small intestine (small bowel). The waste matter that's left after going through the colon goes into the rectum, the final 6 inches (15cm) of the digestive system. It's stored there until it passes through the anus. Ring-shaped muscles (also called a sphincter) around the anus keep stool from coming out until they relax during a bowel movement.

color illustration of the digestive system which shows the location of the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, transverse colon, descending colon, sigmoid colon, anus, rectum, appendix, cecum, ascending colon, small intestine, gallbladder and liver

How does colorectal cancer start?

Polyps in the colon or rectum

Most colorectal cancers start as a growth on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. These growths are called polyps.

Some types of polyps can change into cancer over time (usually many years), but not all polyps become cancer. The chance of a polyp turning into cancer depends on the type of polyp it is. There are different types of polyps.

  • Adenomatous polyps (adenomas): These polyps sometimes change into cancer. Because of this, adenomas are called a pre-cancerous condition. The 3 types of adenomas are tubular, villous, and tubulovillous. 
  • Hyperplastic polyps and inflammatory polyps: These polyps are more common, but in general they are not pre-cancerous. Some people with large (more than 1cm) hyperplastic polyps might need colorectal cancer screening with colonoscopy more often. 
  • Sessile serrated polyps (SSP) and traditional serrated adenomas (TSA): These polyps are often treated like adenomas because they have a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

Other factors that can make a polyp more likely to contain cancer or increase someone’s risk of developing colorectal cancer include:

  • If a polyp larger than 1 cm is found
  • If more than 3 polyps are found
  • If dysplasia is seen in the polyp after it's removed. Dysplasia is another pre-cancerous condition. It means there's an area in a polyp or in the lining of the colon or rectum where the cells look abnormal, but they haven't become cancer.

For more details on the types of polyps and conditions that can lead to colorectal cancer, see Understanding Your Pathology Report: Colon Polyps.

How colorectal cancer spreads

If cancer forms in a polyp, it can grow into the wall of the colon or rectum over time. The wall of the colon and rectum is made up of many layers. Colorectal cancer starts in the innermost layer (the mucosa) and can grow outward through some or all of the other layers (see picture below).

When cancer cells are in the wall, they can then grow into blood vessels or lymph vessels (tiny channels that carry away waste and fluid). From there, they can travel to nearby lymph nodes or to distant parts of the body.

The stage (extent of spread) of a colorectal cancer depends on how deeply it grows into the wall and if it has spread outside the colon or rectum. For more on staging, see Colorectal Cancer Stages.

illustration showing a cross section of the digestive tract (normal intestinal tissue) and details of the layers of the colon wall (including the mucosa (epithelium, connective tissue, thin muscle layer), submucosa, thick muscle layers, subserosa and serosa)

Types of cancer in the colon and rectum

Most colorectal cancers are adenocarcinomas. These cancers start in cells that make mucus to lubricate the inside of the colon and rectum. When doctors talk about colorectal cancer, they're almost always talking about this type. Some sub-types of adenocarcinoma, such as signet ring and mucinous, may have a worse prognosis (outlook) than other subtypes of adenocarcinoma.  

Other, much less common types of tumors can also start in the colon and rectum. These include:

  • Carcinoid tumors. These start from special hormone-making cells in the intestine. See Gastrointestinal Carcinoid Tumors.
  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) start from special cells in the wall of the colon called the interstitial cells of Cajal. Some are benign (not cancer). These tumors can be found anywhere in the digestive tract, but are not common in the colon. See Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST).
  • Lymphomas are cancers of immune system cells. They mostly start in lymph nodes, but they can also start in the colon, rectum, or other organs. Information on lymphomas of the digestive system can be found in Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.
  • Sarcomas can start in blood vessels, muscle layers, or other connective tissues in the wall of the colon and rectum. Sarcomas of the colon or rectum are rare. See Soft Tissue Sarcoma.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

American Cancer Society. Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2020-2022. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society; 2020.

Korphaisarn, K., Morris, V., Davis, J.S. et al. Signet ring cell colorectal cancer: genomic insights into a rare subpopulation of colorectal adenocarcinoma. Br J Cancer. 2019; 121: 505–510. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41416-019-0548-9.

Lawler M, Johnston B, Van Schaeybroeck S, Salto-Tellez M, Wilson R, Dunlop M, and Johnston PG. Chapter 74 – Colorectal Cancer. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Dorshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Elsevier: 2020.

Libutti SK, Saltz LB, Willett CG, and Levine RA. Ch 62 - Cancer of the Colon. In: DeVita VT, Hellman S, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott-Williams & Wilkins; 2019.

Libutti SK, Willett CG, Saltz LB, and Levine RA. Ch 63 - Cancer of the Rectum. In: DeVita VT, Hellman S, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott-Williams & Wilkins; 2019.

Luo C, Cen S, Ding G, Wu W. Mucinous colorectal adenocarcinoma: clinical pathology and treatment options. Cancer Commun (Lond). 2019;39(1):13. Published 2019 Mar 29. doi:10.1186/s40880-019-0361-0

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Colorectal Cancer Screening. V.2.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/colorectal_screening.pdf on Jan 23, 2020.

Steele SR, Johnson EK, Champagne B et al. Endoscopy and polyps-diagnostic and therapeutic advances in management. World J Gastroenterol 2013; 19(27): 4277-4288.

Thorlacius H, Takeuchi Y, Kanesaka T, Ljungberg O, Uedo N, and Toth E. Serrated polyps – a concealed but prevalent precursor of colorectal cancer. Scand J Gastroenterol. 2017; 52(6-7):654-667. DOI: 10.1080/00365521.2017.1298154.

References

American Cancer Society. Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2020-2022. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society; 2020.

Korphaisarn, K., Morris, V., Davis, J.S. et al. Signet ring cell colorectal cancer: genomic insights into a rare subpopulation of colorectal adenocarcinoma. Br J Cancer. 2019; 121: 505–510. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41416-019-0548-9.

Lawler M, Johnston B, Van Schaeybroeck S, Salto-Tellez M, Wilson R, Dunlop M, and Johnston PG. Chapter 74 – Colorectal Cancer. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Dorshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Elsevier: 2020.

Libutti SK, Saltz LB, Willett CG, and Levine RA. Ch 62 - Cancer of the Colon. In: DeVita VT, Hellman S, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott-Williams & Wilkins; 2019.

Libutti SK, Willett CG, Saltz LB, and Levine RA. Ch 63 - Cancer of the Rectum. In: DeVita VT, Hellman S, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott-Williams & Wilkins; 2019.

Luo C, Cen S, Ding G, Wu W. Mucinous colorectal adenocarcinoma: clinical pathology and treatment options. Cancer Commun (Lond). 2019;39(1):13. Published 2019 Mar 29. doi:10.1186/s40880-019-0361-0

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Colorectal Cancer Screening. V.2.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/colorectal_screening.pdf on Jan 23, 2020.

Steele SR, Johnson EK, Champagne B et al. Endoscopy and polyps-diagnostic and therapeutic advances in management. World J Gastroenterol 2013; 19(27): 4277-4288.

Thorlacius H, Takeuchi Y, Kanesaka T, Ljungberg O, Uedo N, and Toth E. Serrated polyps – a concealed but prevalent precursor of colorectal cancer. Scand J Gastroenterol. 2017; 52(6-7):654-667. DOI: 10.1080/00365521.2017.1298154.

Last Revised: June 29, 2020

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