Does bowel cancer spread quickly?

The rate at which bowel cancer spreads can vary greatly from person to person. In general, bowel cancer tends to grow slowly over time.

The stage of bowel cancer, which refers to how advanced the cancer is, can also impact how quickly the cancer spreads. Most of these cancers start as a growth called a polyp. Taking out a polyp early may keep it from turning into cancer.

In general, the earlier the stage at which bowel cancer is diagnosed, the less likely it is to have spread and the better the prognosis tends to be. For example, stage I bowel cancer, which is the least advanced stage, is less likely to have spread than stage IV bowel cancer, which is the most advanced stage.

However, some people may develop more aggressive forms of the disease that can grow and spread more quickly.

Most cancer researchers have assumed that the spread, or metastasis, of tumors typically occurs later in the disease process. The general idea has been that as tumors grow and cancer cells accumulate more and more genetic changes, or mutations, some cells acquire the ability to move from the primary tumor into the bloodstream or lymphatic system, to migrate to a distant location in the body, and to grow into tumors in the new location.

But that’s not what Christina Curtis, Ph.D., of Stanford University School of Medicine, and her team found. Rather, their genomic analysis of both original, or primary, colorectal tumors and metastatic tumors from the same patients, coupled with computer simulations, led them to conclude that colorectal cancer can spread very soon after the original tumor has developed—and maybe years before the disease is diagnosed.

Their findings, published June 17 in Nature Genetics, open a window for very early detection of metastatic colorectal cancer and could eventually help doctors identify those patients who need more aggressive systemic treatments, such as chemotherapy given after surgical removal of the tumor, Dr. Curtis said.

It’s important to note that every person’s experience with bowel cancer is unique, and the rate at which the disease progresses will depend on a variety of factors, including the individual’s overall health, the type and aggressiveness of the cancer, and the effectiveness of the treatment. Your healthcare team will be able to provide more information about the specific characteristics of your cancer and the expected rate of progression.