What are the differences between colon cancer and rectal cancer?

Colon cancer and rectal cancer are often grouped together because they have a lot in common—including some symptoms—but they are different, depending on where they originate. Dr. Philip Parks, Head of Medical Affairs at Exact Sciences, provides more information in this Q&A.

What is the difference between colon and rectal cancers?

The greatest difference lies is the anatomy of the body and gastrointestinal tract. While the colon and rectum are both part of the large intestine, the colon is approximately five feet long and the rectum is the last five to six inches of the colon that connects to the anus. There is a trend over the last few decades of slightly decreasing incidence in colon cancer in older individuals. However, there is a recent trend of increasing incidence of cancers of the distal colon and rectum in individuals under the age of 50. Most of these cases in younger individuals occur in people who are in their 40s and, in general, these cancers in younger individuals are more aggressive. There are common symptoms for colon and rectal cancer (bleeding, pain, changes in stool) and there are also some unique symptoms for colon and rectal cancer.

How do you diagnose colon versus rectal cancer?

While many people may be familiar with colonoscopy as a common form of screening for colon and rectal cancers, there are also non-invasive options for screening, including a stool DNA test, fecal immunochemical tests, and CT colonography. Major guidelines encourage patients and healthcare providers to select the best screening test for the patient by talking about the options. Knowing your risk factors and getting screened are the keys to diagnosing colon and rectal cancer early, when they are most treatable. If caught early, the survival rate for colorectal cancer is 90 percent—as opposed to less than 10 percent if caught in the latest stage.

Is one cancer more serious (or aggressive) than the other?

Again, anatomy plays a role. The stage of cancer—or how much the cancer has spread—is one of the most important ways to define severity. Overall, the rectum is much shorter than the colon and in a tighter spot in the body, making it potentially easier for the cancer to spread to surrounding tissue. In general, rectal cancer can be more difficult to treat and cure and may recur for as many 55 percent of people.

Are treatments for colon cancer and rectal cancer the same?

Depending on the diagnosis and progression (“stage”) of the disease, surgery and/or chemotherapy may be options to treat both colon and rectal cancers. One difference is radiation therapy, which is not commonly used to treat colon cancer; however, radiation may be used to treat rectal cancer.

What is the benefit of screening and early diagnosis?

One of the most important public health challenges is that millions of individuals are not up to date and current with colorectal cancer screening guidelines. Because of the “screening gap,” colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. among men and women combined, claiming more than 50,000 lives each year. The good news is that through early detection, nine out of 10 people survive—as opposed to only one in 10 if the cancer is caught in the latest stage.

Learn about colorectal cancer prevention and screening here, and consider donating to the Colon Cancer Alliance to advance our work to support the needs of patients and families, caregivers, and survivors; to raise awareness of preventative screening; and to help fund critical research. 

Colon Cancer Alliance Announces Corporate Name Change

National Non-Profit Begins A New Chapter Revealing New Name, New Logo, & Inclusive Mission

November 2, 2017 (Washington, D.C.) –  Effective immediately, the Colon Cancer Alliance is now the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, embracing the entire colorectal cancer community, adopting a new name, and committing to a powerful mission: To empower a nation of allies who work with us to provide support for patients and families, caregivers, and survivors; to raise awareness of preventative measures; and inspire efforts to fund critical research. The official rebrand brings an inclusive identity that ensures accuracy, leadership, and most important- alliance within the colorectal cancer community.

The Launch of a Nation of Allies – The name change is part of a larger rebranding effort for the organization which includes a new logo and visual identity, new website, and commitment to accuracy for the entire colorectal cancer community.

With the strategic mission of servicing both colon and rectal cancer patients, combined with fierce determination to end colorectal cancer within our lifetime, the Colorectal Cancer Alliance set three ambitious goals:  

  • Double the number of patients served by 2021
  • Save 100,000 lives with preventive screening in the next 10 years
  • Invest $10 million in critical research

The organization launched a national network for advocates and allies to show their support in eliminating colorectal cancer within our lifetime and highlight ways individuals can educate their local communities on prevention and screening options. The focus of the “Nation of Allies” theme is to empower individuals to work with the Colorectal Cancer Alliance to provide support to patients and families, survivors, and caregivers, to raise awareness of preventative measures, and to inspire efforts to fund critical research.

“On behalf of the entire Colorectal Cancer Alliance community, we are beyond thrilled to be launching this new name, logo and visual identity to help continue to grow as the leading resource for patients and families,” said Michael Sapienza, CEO of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.  The Colorectal Cancer Alliance is the oldest, largest colorectal cancer non-profit in the nation and I am proud to part of this amazing evolution” Michael Sapienza, CEO, Colorectal Cancer Alliance.

Nearly a third of all colorectal cancers diagnosed this year will be rectal cancer. Nearly 40,000 new U.S. cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in 2017 alone. Colon cancer and rectal cancer are often grouped together because they have a lot in common—including symptoms—but they are different, depending on where they originate. Through this rebrand, the Colorectal Cancer Alliance has extended its reach into the colorectal cancer community by 30% while committing to align a nation of allies, together in the mission to end this disease.

“We share a common goal of eradicating colorectal cancer through prevention and early detection,” said Kevin Conroy, chairman and CEO of Exact Sciences and long time national partner of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. “As this new chapter begins for the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, we are committed to working together to increase awareness about the importance of getting screened for this preventable disease.”

The name change and brand reveal debuted alongside the 2017 Tomorrow Can’t Wait National Conference at the Cleveland Clinic on November 1st. Conference attendees consisting of patients, survivors, and caregivers, had front row seats and true VIP access at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for the official kick-off. The nonprofit decided on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame from so many requests from cancer patients attending the conference. You can visit the Facebook live rebrand announcement at

“To be surrounded by patients and families at such a historic event, celebrating new beginnings and amazing accomplishments is truly one of the most important nights of my life. We are grateful to this nation of allies supporting our vision: A world free of colorectal cancer within our lifetime” Michael Sapienza, CEO.

The Colorectal Cancer Alliance worked with Alexandria, VA based creative agency Grafik on the new identity and overall rebranding efforts.

To learn more about the rebrand and Colorectal Cancer Alliance, visit


About the Colorectal Cancer Alliance

The Colorectal Cancer Alliance is a national nonprofit committed to ending colorectal cancer. Working with our nation of passionate allies, we diligently support the needs of patients and families, caregivers, and survivors, eagerly raise awareness of preventative screening, and continually strive to fund critical research. As allies in the struggle, we are fiercely determined to end colorectal cancer within our lifetime. For more information, visit


National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month 2018

Together as a nation of passionate allies, we can end this senseless killer within our lifetime.

When you donate, fundraise, or dress in blue this month, you will help us provide support, raise awareness, and fund critical research to benefit millions of colorectal cancer patients, survivors, and family members.

Every ally is a hero.