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Colorectal cancer

Receiving a colon cancer or rectal cancer diagnosis can leave you with a range of emotions from sadness to anger to disbelief. We’re here to help.

At HealthPartners and Park Nicollet, our team of board-certified gastroenterologists, oncologists, colorectal surgeons, pharmacists, nurses and other colon cancer specialists work closely together to care for your mind, body and spirit. We use the latest research to create personalized treatment plans, help you access clinical trials and offer integrative therapies to lessen the side effects of treatment.

Our award-winning cancer centers lead the way in colorectal cancer treatment. Methodist Hospital was the first in Minnesota to have a National Accreditation Program for Rectal Cancer (NAPRC) and is an active member of the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer. Also, Regions Hospital and Methodist Hospital are both recognized by the U.S. News and World Report as high-performing hospitals for colon cancer surgery.

With access to research and clinical trials, along with nationally recognized cancer centers across the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin, the high-quality colon cancer care you deserve is always close to home.

What is colorectal cancer?

Cancer is a disease where cells grow out of control and crowd out healthy cells. Colorectal cancer is the type of cancer that starts in the colon or rectum. When cancer cells grow in the colon or rectum, they often form polyps. Polyps are small growths or masses that form in the walls of your rectum or colon.

Your colon and rectum are part of your gastrointestinal (GI) system, the part of your body that digests food. There are five stages of colorectal cancer that are based on how far the cancer has spread.

Colorectal cancer symptoms

Colon and rectal cancer symptoms can be similar to other colorectal conditions. In the early stages of colon cancer, it’s possible not to experience any symptoms. That’s why following colorectal cancer screening guidelines is so important for early detection. Common signs of colon cancer and rectal cancer include blood in your stool, cramping or stomach pain, very dark stools and unexplained weight loss.

Anytime you have new or unusual symptoms that you are concerned about or are getting worse, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with one of our primary care doctors. We can diagnose hundreds of conditions and can help you get the answers you need quickly. If your care requires additional expertise, we’ll connect you directly with one of our gastroenterologists.

Colorectal cancer risk factors

While it’s possible for anyone to develop colorectal cancer, the risks increase as you get older– most colorectal cancer is found in people over 50 years old. That’s why the recommended age to start colorectal cancer screening is 45 years old. We’re not always able to tell what causes colon cancer, but some risk factors can include:

  • Being African American, American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Having inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • A family history of colorectal cancer
  • Previous radiation treatments to the belly or pelvis
  • Lifestyle factors such as excess weight, smoking, heavy alcohol use and lack of physical activity

Diagnosing colorectal cancer

Tests are often needed to make a colon cancer or rectal cancer diagnosis. Some common tests for colon cancer include:


A colonoscopy is an exam used to find polyps and other abnormalities along the wall of your colon. It’s used for colorectal cancer screening, but colonoscopies are also used as a diagnostic tool when someone is experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms such as chronic or recurring abdominal pain, gas and bloating, recurrent diarrhea or constipation, and more.

During the procedure, a doctor will guide a very small tube with a tiny camera into your rectum, allowing them to view and pinpoint areas that may be cancerous. If there are small polyps found during a colonoscopy, we’ll remove them during the procedure. This procedure will last between twenty minutes and an hour. We’ll discuss whether the use of general anesthesia or sedatives is right for you.


If we suspect you have rectal cancer (which is different from colon cancer), we may recommend a proctoscopy. In this procedure, we’ll examine your rectum using a thin, lighted tube with a camera at the tip. We might use general anesthesia to help keep you comfortable during the procedure. If we find a tumor, we’ll measure its size and precise location. Often, we’ll be able to remove the tumors during a proctoscopy. If another procedure is needed, our doctors will talk to you about your options.


If a polyp or potentially cancerous tissue is detected during any of the screenings, it will likely need to be biopsied during a colonoscopy. We’ll remove a small piece of this tissue and have it sent to our lab for further testing.

Imaging tests

Imaging tests can be used to give us a look at the inside of your colon and rectum. These tests are noninvasive and completely painless. Common tests include CT scans, abdominal ultrasounds, MRI scans, PET scans and X-rays.

Colorectal cancer treatment

Colon and rectal cancer can take years to fully develop or start spreading. Because of this, your treatment plan and care team will depend on the precise nature of your diagnosis, including the type and stage of colorectal cancer.

Advancements in cancer research have found that each person’s response to cancer treatment is unique. We recognize that no patients are exactly alike, and we’ll work closely with you to create a personalized treatment plan. When treating colorectal cancer, our oncologists, gastroenterologists and colorectal surgeons work together to find the most effective colon and rectal cancer treatment plan for you.

It’s common to use a combination of the following treatment methods:


If the colorectal cancer is in an early stage, colorectal surgery may be the only treatment you need. For later-stage colon or rectal cancer, surgery is often used with other treatments like radiation or chemotherapy for the best results.

Polypectomy and local excision procedures are some of the most common types of colorectal surgery used to remove cancerous tumors or cells from your colon or rectum. Both of these procedures are minimally invasive and done as part of a colonoscopy.

No matter the stage of the colon or rectal cancer, a colorectal surgeon can work with you to choose the best option, let you know how to prepare and answer all your questions.

Watchful waiting

Depending on a variety of factors, specifically how advanced the cancer may be, your care team may recommend watchful waiting. This often means your treatment plan consists of periodic screenings and careful medication management, rather than more aggressive treatment methods like surgery.


Chemotherapy, often called “chemo,” uses strong drugs to kill cancerous cells throughout the entire body. Your doctor might recommend chemotherapy to treat cancer cells that have spread (metastasized) from the primary tumor. It’s commonly used to treat cancer or stop cancer from growing by shrinking the tumors. This treatment method is often used along with other treatments like surgery or immunotherapy.


Radiation therapy is used to treat and manage cancer in affected areas of the body by using beams of intense energy to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. Unlike normal cells, cancer cells can’t heal damage caused by radiation.


Also called biological therapy, this relatively new treatment uses medicines that heighten your body’s natural immune response to cancer. There are different types of immunotherapy treatments. Some give your immune system an overall boost and some help your immune system specifically target cancer cells.

Targeted therapy

This treatment can isolate and change specific behaviors within cancer cells, like stopping their growth, killing cancer cells or blocking chemical signals within the cells. Targeted therapy damages fewer healthy cells than chemotherapy because it attacks only cancer cells. It’s primarily used with other treatments for the best results.

Our colorectal cancer care services

During cancer treatment, our colon cancer specialists help make sure that you and your family feel as comfortable and supported as possible. To do this, we offer a wide range of services as part of personalized treatment plans, including:

Integrative therapies

Integrative therapies are supporting treatments some people choose to have in addition to their cancer treatments. They’re used to reduce the side effects of cancer treatments and improve your overall emotional and spiritual well-being. Common types of integrative therapies include massage, healing touch, reflexology, music therapy and acupuncture.

Palliative care

Palliative care helps improve the quality of life for people with advanced stages of cancer. Palliative care works alongside medical care to keep you comfortable and provide additional support. Our specialized palliative care team works closely with our oncology department so the support you need during your illness is easily accessible. Our palliative care team will help you understand your treatments, do daily activities, coordinate communication with your doctor and can perform other services to help support you and your family.

Nutrition services

Good nutrition is needed to support the increased demands on your body while you heal. The benefits include preserving muscle mass, a healthy immune system, fewer complications and a better quality of life. We’ll recommend different nutrition guidelines to you depending on your type of cancer, stage of cancer or treatment plan. Our registered nutritionists can provide nutrition counseling to help with managing weight changes, dealing with side effects of treatment and navigating nutrition recommendations.

Genetic counseling

Cancer develops by chance, but people with a family history of cancer might be at a higher risk. It’s possible to have a gene mutation that can be passed from generation to generation. A genetic counselor can meet with you to go over your personal or family history of cancer and help you understand your hereditary risks. If you have questions about genetic counseling or want to know if genetic counseling is right for you, please ask your care team.

Cancer rehabilitation

Cancer can change the way your body functions. What used to be easy might become more difficult because of fatigue, joint pain, stiffness, weakness, numbing or swelling. Some people might even develop difficulty thinking, balancing, speaking or swallowing. Cancer rehabilitation is a type of treatment that helps you improve your function and ability to do daily activities. We’ll recommend the best treatments for you, which may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and others.

Specialty pharmacy

We provide a specialty pharmacy that’s staffed by pharmacists who are experts in cancer medications. Because our pharmacy is fully integrated with our cancer treatment centers, our pharmacists are able to work closely with your treatment team. This helps to make sure you get the special medications you need to treat and manage cancer. Our team will help you understand the cost of your medication and help you with your insurance.

The Accreditation Commission for Health Care (ACHC) has recognized us as a specialty pharmacy with a Distinction in Oncology.

Home care and hospice

Home care is when doctor-led care is provided in the comfort of your home. The goal is to manage your condition, keep you comfortable and ensure you can safely live in your home. Our team of doctors, nurses and aides will work with you to develop a care plan that meets your needs. If you think home care is the best option for you or your family member, please talk to a member of your care team. We’ll answer your questions and guide you to helpful resources.

Hospice is a type of individualized care provided to patients. The goal of hospice care is to relieve pain and help a patient’s final days be as comfortable and meaningful as possible. Hospice care doesn’t happen in a specific place. Instead, we can provide hospice care wherever you and your family feel most comfortable, including at home, in an assisted living facility, in a hospital or in a residential hospice facility. We’ll work with you to develop a care plan that helps with your medical needs along with the emotional and spiritual needs of you and your family.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)