Diseases & Research

Colorectal Cancer

Colon cancer cells

On the left are healthy colon cells, to the lower right are cancer cells (light purple) while to the upper right are more cancer cells producing large amounts of mucin.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

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Our researchers are pursuing discoveries that could revolutionize how we prevent, detect and treat colorectal cancer.

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Fast Facts

  • Colorectal cancer ranks as the third most commonly diagnosed—and second-deadliest—form of cancer in the United States in men and women.

  • Colorectal cancer affects major organs of the digestive system: the colon and/or rectum, which together form a muscular tube about 3 feet long.

  • Colorectal cancer develops in the digestive tract, often from growths, called polyps, which are benign initially but transform into cancerous tumors. Those cancer cells invade and destroy nearby tissue, and can break away from the original tumor to form new tumors in other parts of the body through a process called metastasis.

  • Colorectal cancer is preventable and can be successfully treated if detected early. It typically strikes people over age 50 -- it's recommended that people start screening at that age. Some healthcare experts suggest African-Americans begin screening at 45.

  • People who have a strong family history of the disease should consider an appointment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance's gastrointestinal cancer prevention center.

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Prevention & Causes

Hutchinson Center researchers are identifying key factors that affect a person's colorectal cancer risk:

Vigorous exercise – A study led by Dr. Anne McTiernan found that regular, moderate-to-vigorous exercise reduces a risk factor tied to development of colon polyps and cancer in men. Learn more »

Obesity – The Hutchinson Center coordinates the Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer initiative, a nationwide research program that is unraveling the link between obesity and many cancers. Learn more »

Genetics and environmental factors – The Hutchinson Center is home to the Seattle Familial Colorectal Cancer Registry, which investigates how genetic and environmental factors contribute to colorectal cancer. Learn more »

Postmenopausal hormone therapy – Dr. Polly Newcomb has discovered that women who take estrogen plus progestin postmenopausal hormones have a 40 percent lower risk of developing colorectal cancer. Learn more »

Calcium-rich diets – Research by Dr. Ulrike Peters has suggested that women with calcium-rich diets have a 26 percent lower risk of getting colorectal cancer. Learn more »

Aspirin – Aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by up to half. Because those drugs can have negative side effects, Dr. Neli Ulrich is investigating whether NSAIDs do more harm than good. Learn more »

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Detection & Diagnosis

Hutchinson Center researchers are investigating new tests that could dramatically improve colorectal cancer screening:

Improving early detection – Dr. William Grady is working to identify the earliest detectable changes in normal colon cells that become cancerous. Through those findings, he hopes to develop a safe and accurate colorectal cancer test that analyzes blood or stool samples. The goal is to encourage more people to get screened for colorectal cancer and use the more-invasive colonoscopy procedure for higher-risk cases. Grady is also studying how mutations in certain genes cause colorectal cancer to grow, which could lead to new treatments. Learn more »

Dr. Scott Ramsey has found that colorectal cancer patients diagnosed through a routine test to detect blood in the stool have less advanced disease and significantly lower health care costs than those diagnosed because of symptoms.

Dr. Ziding Feng and Dr. Mark Thornquist lead the Early Detection Research Network, which aims to determine how biomarkers might help assess a person's cancer risk and catch cancers earlier.

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Treatment & Prognosis

Pursuing customized treatments – Dr. Neli Ulrich is leading the first study that takes an in-depth look at the various factors that can determine the outcome of a colorectal cancer diagnosis. In the ColoCare Consortium study, researchers hope to learn what patients themselves can do to improve their health after diagnosis and to develop customized treatments to fit individual patients' bodies.

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