Digest this information

Have you noticed the increase in colorectal cancer commercials?

I see them often on television, little cartoons touting the ease of screening for colorectal cancer at home. (The cartoons are correct, by the way. It’s super easy to complete a screening from the privacy of your own bathroom.) Considering the topic, the commercials are well done: They don’t make viewers unduly uncomfortable, and they convey important information about one form of screening. Here's one example:

It seems culture is slowly coming to terms with talking openly about colorectal cancer. This is an important step toward increasing awareness about this highly preventable form of cancer. Screenings, as well as a healthy lifestyle, can help keep colorectal cancer at bay.

We hear less often about why our colon and rectum are so important. We take it for granted that healthy is better than unhealthy, but how many of us know just what those body parts do? Here’s a quick look at these important parts of the body.

The colon

Maybe you know the colon by one of its other names, the large intestine or large bowel. The colon is the fourth piece of your digestive tract. First is the mouth, where your teeth and saliva begin the process of breaking down the food you eat into nutrients your body can use. From there, food travels down your esophagus into your stomach, where enzymes break down food even further and muscles churn the broken-down bits into a liquid, which then moves into the small intestine. There juices from the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder break down food particles still further, and blood vessels take vitamins and minerals extracted from your food to other organs in the body.

When this process is complete, everything left over — mostly liquid, at this point — moves into the colon, where the water is absorbed. The colon contains bacteria that break down the remaining material, which moves into the rectum.

The rectum

That remaining material is waste, and your body will move it out of the rectum as stool. When material or gas enters the rectum, your body alerts your brain, which decides how quickly you need to find a restroom.

If either the colon or rectum encounters a problem, your entire digestive system is affected. Keeping that system working ensures your body gets the nutrients it needs to operate in tip-top shape. Of course, one key component to getting those nutrients is feeding your body nutritious meals. Research shows that a healthy diet is one of the most important preventive tools in our arsenal against colorectal cancer.

More resources

Want to learn more about the colon and rectum? Check out these resources.

American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons explains in more detail how digestion works.

Healthline has an interactive map of the digestive system.