Colorectal cancer and colon cancer are distinct but closely related conditions. Both arise from the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the large intestine. However, differences in their risk of spread and other factors set them apart.

Colorectal cancer is a broader term encompassing both colon and rectal cancer. Conversely, colon cancer refers explicitly to cancerous growths that develop in the colon, not the rectum.

These cancers share similar risk factors, symptoms, and treatment approaches, but their specific anatomical locations and potential disease progression may warrant different management strategies.

This article compares colorectal and colon cancer and discusses some of their similarities and differences.

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Colorectal cancer and colon cancer both originate in the digestive system, specifically in the large intestine. There are other characteristics these cancers share, including:


Colorectal cancer and colon cancer are among the most common types of cancer worldwide. They are more prevalent in developed countries and occur more frequently in older people.

The incidence of both cancers has increased in younger adults in recent years, highlighting the importance of early detection and screening.


Both colorectal cancer and colon cancer may present with similar symptoms, including:

  • changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation
  • rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
  • abdominal pain or cramping
  • unexplained weight loss
  • fatigue
  • a sensation that the bowel does not empty completely

Learn more about colon cancer and back pain.

If someone is experiencing any new symptoms or generally has concerns, they should talk with a healthcare professional.

Risk factors

Common risk factors for colorectal cancer and colon cancer include:

  • age (the risk increases with age)
  • a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • certain genetic conditions, such as Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis

Lifestyle factors can also increase the risk of both types of cancer, such as:

  • a diet high in red and processed meats
  • low fiber intake
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • obesity
  • smoking
  • heavy alcohol consumption


Both cancers arise from the accumulation of genetic mutations in the cells lining the large intestine. These mutations can lead to uncontrolled cell growth and form tumors.

Furthermore, both cancers have genetic mutations controlling their growth, including familial adenomatous polyposis.


Screening plays a crucial role in the early detection and prevention of both colorectal cancer and colon cancer. The procedure is the same for both and includes the following:

  • stool-based tests
  • visual exams (colonoscopy and flexible sigmoidoscopy)
  • polyp removal

Experts recommend people with an average risk begin regular screening at age 45. Screening can begin earlier for people with a higher risk, such as those with certain risk factors or a family history of colorectal cancer.

Learn more about screening for colorectal cancer.

Survival rates

Survival rates for colorectal cancer and colon cancer can vary depending on several factors, including:

  • the disease stage
  • the presence of metastasis, or the spread of cancer to other body parts
  • overall health status of the person

Generally, the survival rates for rectal and colon cancer are similar. That said, colon cancer has a slightly lower (63%) overall 5-year survival rate than rectal cancer (68%), according to the American Cancer Society.

Learn more about how doctors determine survival rates.

Colorectal cancer and colon cancer also have important distinctions that affect their management, including:


Colorectal cancer encompasses cancers that start in either the colon or rectum. Colon cancer specifically refers to cancer originating in the colon.

The anatomy of the colon and rectum differ. The rectum is closer to other organs and does not have the serosa, a protective outer layer. This tends to make metastasis of rectal cancer more likely.


Colorectal cancer and colon cancer can return (recur) after initial treatment. The risk of recurrence depends on various factors, including:

  • the cancer stage at the time of diagnosis
  • the effectiveness of treatment
  • other factors

Recurrence also differs slightly between colorectal cancer and colon cancer. A 2019 study followed 188 people with rectal adenocarcinoma. Researchers found the local recurrence was up to 45% after 5 years.

In a 2016 study, researchers found 30–40% of people who were treated for their colon cancer developed a recurrence.


Both cancers can potentially spread to other body parts by entering the bloodstream or lymph system.

Because rectal tumors are closer to blood vessels, they may spread readily. They tend to spread to the lungs and nervous system. Conversely, colon cancer often spreads to the liver.

Learn more about metastatic colorectal cancer.

Sex differences

There are slight differences in the incidence and location of colorectal cancer and colon cancer between males and females. Generally, males tend to have a higher incidence of colorectal cancer.


Broadly, the types of treatments available for both colorectal cancer and colon cancer may include:

However, the drugs and approaches may vary between the cancers. For example, surgery may not be feasible for later stages of colon cancer.

Colorectal cancer vs. colon cancer: Treatment

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For both cancers, specific treatment plans can depend on the following:

  • the cancer stage
  • characteristics of cancer
  • the person’s overall health
  • previous treatments

Furthermore, people with rectal cancer often require a permanent colostomy after surgery, as the cancer could affect the lower rectum and anal sphincter.

Colorectal cancer and colon cancer are related but distinct diseases, each with its own characteristics and treatment approaches.

While they share many similarities, such as symptoms, there are notable differences in anatomy, survival rates, and treatment plans. Any new symptoms or concerns may warrant a visit to a healthcare professional.

Doctors can use a variety of tests to differentiate the two. Generally, understanding the differences between colorectal cancer and colon cancer is crucial for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment decisions.