Although at first diverticulitis and colon cancer may present similar symptoms, they are two very different conditions. Diverticulitis is a condition set off by infection or rupture of diverticula, which are bulges forming in the lower part of the large intestine or colon. The risk of developing diverticula is usually higher in people over 40. Diverticula themselves do not cause many problems, but once the condition progresses into diverticulitis, it can be quite severe, leading to pain, nausea, and changes to bowels.
Colon cancer has always been linked to old age, with about 75 percent of cases in the over 65 age category. Over the last decade, the number of cases among the younger population has shot up, leading to speculation that modern day diet may have something to do with the problem.
Here we will outline the differences in causes, symptoms, risk factors, and complications with regards to diverticulitis and colon cancer.
Colon cancer vs. diverticulitis: U.S. prevalence
Colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. As mentioned above, 95,000 new cases of this type of cancer are expected in this year alone (2016). The new cases of rectal cancer are expected to be just over 39,000 in the U.S. The overall lifetime risk of getting colon cancer is 1 in 21 for men and 1 in 23 for women.
Roughly two million people in the U.S. suffer from diverticular disease. Prevalence rate is one in 136, or 0.74 percent. Annually, 300,000 new cases of diverticulitis are diagnosed.
Comparing colon cancer and diverticulitis signs and symptoms
Colon cancer signs and symptoms:
- Diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of stool that lasts more than a few days
- Feeling that you have to have a bowel movement after you have had a bowel movement
- Rectal bleeding
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Weakness and fatigue
Signs and symptoms of diverticulitis include severe pain that may last for days and takes place in the lower left side of the abdomen, nausea and vomiting, fever, abdominal tenderness, constipation, and in some cases diarrhea (a less common symptom).
Difference between diverticulitis and colon cancer causes
We don’t know for certain what causes colon cancer, but what we do know is that colon cancer takes place when healthy cells develop errors in their DNA. Essentially, healthy cells grow and divide to keep our body working, but when cell damage occurs, cell division continues even when it isn’t needed and, as a result, a tumor forms.
People can sometimes get what is called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, or HNPCC. It is also referred to as Lynch syndrome. People with HNPCC tend to get colon cancer before the age of 50. There is also something called familial adenomatous polyposis, or Fap. This is a rare disorder that causes thousands of polyps in the lining of the colon. If Fap goes untreated, you have a greater risk of developing colon cancer before the age of 40.
You may have heard about the association between diet and increased risk of colon cancer. Many large studies suggest that a Western diet, rich in fat and low in fiber, is the culprit.
Weak spots along the bottom of the large intestine can prompt the formation of diverticula. When pressure is added, bulges form. These bulges, or pouches, may protrude through the colon wall. When they burst or get infected, this marks the diagnosis of diverticulitis. It is worth noting that diverticula themselves do not necessarily cause symptoms.
Colon cancer vs. diverticulitis: Risk factors and complications
Many people associate most cancers with age progression, and most people who have colon cancer are older than 50, but below is a list of other ingredients that can contribute to risk.
- African American race – statistically accounts for more colon cancer cases than other races
- Personal history of polyps – colon polyps or past history of colon cancer
- Inflammatory intestinal condition – chronic inflammatory diseases increase the risk
- Inherited syndromes – genetic syndromes passed through generations, such as Lynch syndrome
- Family history of colon cancer – a parent, sibling, or child with the disease
- Sedentary lifestyle – less activity can lead to cancer
- Diabetes – people with diabetes and insulin resistance may be at higher risk
- Obesity – excess weight
- Smoking or drinking alcohol – people who smoke and/or drink alcohol have increased risk of colon and other cancers
- Radiation therapy – radiation directed at abdomen for previous cancers
Colon cancer is challenging and comes with potential complications. For example, infection and bleeding is a possibility following any surgical procedures that might be required. Therapies, such as chemotherapy, and biotherapy can lead to nausea, vomiting, more diarrhea, and the inability to fight infection. Sometimes, there are also intestinal blockages in the colon, when waste is unable to move through the intestine.
There are a few factors, aside from age, that can contribute to one’s risk of developing diverticulitis. They are:
- Obesity – surgery as a treatment is more prevalent among severely overweight patients.
- Smoking – smokers are at higher risk of diverticulitis, compared to non-smokers.
- Lack of exercise – vigorous exercise has been shown to reduce one’s risk of diverticulitis.
- Diet – foods that are high in animal fat and low in fiber are recommended for lowering the risk of diverticulitis.
- Certain medications – steroids, opiates, and common over-the-counter pain relievers may all increase your risk of diverticulitis.
Complications that can arise from diverticulitis include the development of an abscess, a blockage of the colon or small intestine, the formation of fistulas, and peritonitis – if the inflamed pouches rupture spilling intestinal contents into the abdomen.
Diagnosis for colon cancer and diverticulitis
Finding colon cancer at its earliest stage provides the greatest chance for a cure. People who are at an average risk of colon cancer are encouraged to consider screening at age 50. Those at increased risk should do it before 50. Screening options include using a scope to examine the inside of the colon, biopsy analysis, blood tests to check overall organ function or to test for chemicals that are sometimes produced by colon cancer.
To properly diagnose diverticulitis, your doctor will conduct a physical examination checking your abdomen and pelvic region. Other tests include blood tests, pregnancy test for women, liver function tests, stool tests, and CT scans, which can help gauge severity of diverticulitis.
Differentiating diverticulitis and colon cancer treatment
There are various treatments for colon cancer. Sometimes, doctors from various disciplines come together to treat a patient who is suffering from colon cancer. Below you will find a list of the most common treatment methods.
- Laparoscopic surgery – viewing scopes are used to guide passage through the abdomen and into the colon where cancer can be removed.
- Radiofrequency ablation – surgery that heats tumors for removal when the cancer has spread to liver or lungs.
- Radiation therapy – radiation beam directed to the location of cancer
- Brachytherapy – radioactive seeds placed inside the body
- Chemotherapy – drugs that destroy cancer cells
- Targeted therapy – targets specific genes, tissue, or proteins that contribute to cancer growth and survival
Medical treatments for diverticulitis include antibiotics to treat infection, liquid diet to allow bowels to heal, and over-the-counter pain relievers. In complicated cases of diverticulitis, surgery may be required, such as primary bowel resection, where the affected part of the intestine is removed and the rest of it is reconnected. Another option is bowel resection with colostomy if it is impossible to reconnect the colon to the rectum due to inflammation.
If diverticulitis is causing pain, there are home remedies you can try for relief. To reduce muscle cramping caused by diverticulitis, you can apply heat to the abdomen. Meditation, too, may be beneficial in managing the associated pain. Lastly, if you need to opt for a pain reliever, stay away from ibuprofen (Advil) and instead reach for acetaminophen (Tylenol).
There are also some preventative measures you can try to lower your risk of developing diverticulitis.
Regular exercise, in particular, is beneficial for preventing diverticulitis, because it helps keep bowels regular. Exercise also works to reduce pressure on the colon. Added pressure on the colon can result in the formation of diverticula.
Fiber, too, is essential. Fiber works to maintain regular bowel movements and helps reduce pressure on the colon. And, in this vein, staying hydrated helps. Although fiber can help you stay regular, without enough fluids it can have the opposite effect. Staying hydrated improves bodily functions, so it’s important to drink enough water.
By practicing healthy habits, such as eating a balanced diet, exercising, and not smoking, you can reduce your risk of developing diverticulitis. Although you can’t control aging or turn back the time, you can control your risk of illness – and it’s as simple as taking proper care of yourself.