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Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, and is the second leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. The American Cancer Society estimates that close to 140,000 will be diagnosed this year with colorectal cancer, and that more than third—about 50,000—will die from it.
Colon cancer is cancer of the large intestine, or colon, which is the lower part of the digestive system. Rectal cancer is cancer of the last several inches of the colon, or rectum. Together, they’re often referred to as colorectal cancers.
Most cases of colon cancer begin as small, noncancerous, or benign, clumps of cells that are called adenomatous polyps. Some of these polyps, however, develop into cancer over time. Polyps may be small and produce few, if any, symptoms. For this reason, doctors recommend regular screening tests to help prevent colon cancer by identifying polyps before they become colon cancer.
There are several types of cancer that can start in the colon or rectum.
As well, there are other, less common types of tumors, which may also begin in the colon and rectum. Among them:
In most cases, it’s not clear what causes colon cancer—though there are a number of risk factors that increase the chance of developing colorectal cancer.
Researchers have found several risk factors that may increase a person’s chance of developing colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer.
Other risk factors include:
In addition to a physical exam, your doctor will ask about your medical and family history, and will then perform diagnostic tests to determine if you have colorectal cancer. Here are the most common tests used to screen for and diagnose colorectal cancer:
After diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review all of the results with you and discuss next steps if applicable.
Many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. When symptoms appear, they’ll likely vary, depending on the cancer’s size and location in your large intestine. This is why screening is so important.
Here are some signs and symptoms of colon cancer to watch out for:
If you notice any symptoms of colon cancer, such as blood in your stool or a persistent change in bowel habits, make an appointment with your doctor.
Talk to your doctor about when you should begin screening for colon cancer. Guidelines generally recommend colon cancer screenings begin at age 50. Your doctor may recommend more frequent or earlier screening if you have other risk factors, such as a family history of the disease.
The outlook for people with colon cancer is better than ever before, thanks to early detection and improvements in understanding and treatment. There are 1 million colon cancer survivors alive in the USA. But colon cancer can still be lethal if it’s not caught early.
Colon cancer death rates have been dropping since the mid-1980’s in part due to increased awareness and increased rates of screening. Finding polyps and cancer in the early stages (local and regional) is when colorectal cancer is easiest to treat.
Local Stage: The five-year survival rate is 90%
Regional Stage: The five-year survival rate is 70%
Distant Stage: The five-year survival rate is 12%
Generally, the goal in colon cancer treatment is to eradicate the cancer, but the disease and its treatments can impact your life. For instance, radiation and chemotherapy may cause nausea, fatigue, or other problems, and surgical treatments can affect your body image. It helps a great deal to talk openly with family, friends, and other colon cancer survivors. There are also medicines available to help with nausea and fatigue, and you can have reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy to help you feel better about your body.
After colon cancer treatment, you should follow up with checkups every 3 to 6 months to make sure the cancer has not returned.
Early detection is key to surviving colon cancer. With regular screening, color cancer can be found and treated early, when treatment is most effective. In many cases, screening can actually prevent colon cancer by finding and removing polyps before they become cancerous. The most important point about screening for colon cancer is this: If cancer is found, the earlier the detection, the higher the rate of survival.
Screening for colon cancer can include minor surgical removal of polyps, which is why it is so critical to be screened regularly. Finding and removing polyps before they become cancerous is the best way to prevent colon cancer.
These are the most common diagnostic test used to screen and diagnose for colon cancer:
There is no sure way to prevent colon cancer, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk:
If you are at especially high risk because of genetics or family history, you may also consider strategies such as preventive surgery or estrogen-blocking medications.
Cancer treatment usually involves a team of experts—and with colorectal cancer, you will likely receive care from one or more of the following medical specialists:
If you have received a diagnosis of colorectal cancer, the next step is to determine the best course of treatment for your disease. Your doctor will discuss your options for treatment, and will adise on the most optimal course of action to take. The following treatments will likely be discussed, either alone or in combination:
Surgical options for colorectal cancer typically depends on how far advanced the cancer is—the invasiveness of the surgical procedure can span from the removal of small tumors while having a colonoscopy to having a section of the colon or rectum removed. If the cancer has metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body, then surgery may be done to remove whatever cancer can be excised from these other areas outside the colon and rectum. Here are some of the most common types of surgery done to treat this type of cancer:
Other forms of surgery include:
Patients are often given chemotherapy or radiation treatement, even if all signs of cancer are cut out at time of surgery to ensure that all cancer cells which might possibly be left do not have the opportunity to peoliferate and create new cancerous growths. This treatment, post-surgery, is known as adjuvant therapy.
Chemotherapy is a drug-based cancer treatment intended to stop the growth of cancer cells by killing the cells or by stopping the cells ability to divide and proliferate. The way chemo is given depends on the stage and type of cancer, your doctor will advise you on what the best course of treatment is for you. Sometimes chemo is taken orally, sometimes it is injected into the bloodstream, and sometimes chemo is injected directly into the spinal column, organ or body cavity, where the drugs can act more locally and kill cancer cells in the area.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation like x-rays to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing or proliferating. The method of delivery depends on the type and severity of the cancer. There are two main types of radiation therapy:
Biologic Therapy or Immunotherapy
Biologic or immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that sees to use the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer
Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Here’s how it works: the therapy stimulates your immune system to fight the cancer itself, with the hope of harnessing the power of your own body’s defense system to eradicate the cancer. While some forms of this type of therapy are being used, many are still in the clinical trial stage.
There are various types of biologic therapy, among them:
If you have colon cancer, research shows that conventional routes of treatment have the highest rates of success. It is critical to work closely with a medical doctor if you have received a diagnosis of colon cancer, as solely relying on complementary treatments has not been proven effective as a stand-alone treatment. Sole reliance on alternative or complementary medicine alone may waste valuable time when the cancer is easiest to treat. However, complementary treatments can be extremely useful and important in the holistic care of your cancer, and can help reduce pain, stress, side effects of medical treatment, and boost overall health. Be sure to speak with your health care professional to see what complementary treatments might be right for you.
Some complementary treatments include:
Always talk to your doctor about any medications you take, including herbal and complementary treatments, as they may interact with your other treatments.
In addition to medical and surgical treatment it’s important to take care of yourself. This may include:
You can also take better care of yourself with:
If you notice any symptoms of colon cancer, like as blood in your stool or a persistent change in bowel habits, make an appointment with your doctor.
Talk to your doctor about when you should begin screening for colon cancer. Guidelines generally recommend colon cancer screenings begin at age 50, but your doctor may recommend more frequent or earlier screening if you have other risk factors, such as a family history of the disease.
Your medical team may consist of several healthcare professionals, such as a gastroenterologist, medical oncologist, a surgical oncologist, and/or a radiation oncologist. You should seek out a physician who is skilled and knowledgeable, with whom you feel comfortable asking questions and getting the answers you need.
The National Cancer Institute can help you find a cancer center near you.
When you go to see your doctor, it’s good to have a list of the questions you’d like to have answered. Take a moment to write down some of the things you want to know. Your questions for your doctor might include some of these:
In addition to the questions that you’ve prepared to ask your doctor, don’t hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
Other useful resources to help you learn about colon cancer can be found at:
American Cancer Society
The National Cancer Institute
The National Colon Cancer Foundation
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