Colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer affecting both men and women in the United States. The risk for colon cancer is around 1 in 20, but the number of people dying from colon cancer has been dropping at a steady rate due to advanced screening. It is most common in people over 50 years of age, but can happen anytime. The good news is there is over one-million colon cancer survivors and the disease is highly treatable if caught early. This article will help you understand what colon cancer is and how it is diagnosed and treated.
What Is Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer occurs when cells in the intestine grow too quickly and form polyps inside the intestines. These polyps can grow into cancerous tumors and spread into healthy tissues and invade the lymphatic system. When this happens, it can spread to other organs and the bones.
The colon is responsible for absorbing nutrients and fluids. Colon cancer can reduce your ability to get proper nutrition and fluids. The colon is also responsible for getting rid of wastes and colon cancer can prevent healthy elimination.
Symptoms of Colon Cancer
Early in colon cancer, there may be no symptoms at all. Symptoms usually appear after the tumor has grown to a significant size. Symptoms vary based on where the cancer is located in the colon. Symptoms include:
Blood in the stools. Blood is either heavy or bright red, streaky, or tarry in appearance.
Mucus in the stools.
Changes in bowel habits for longer than three weeks
Weight loss (When cancer has spread to other organs)
Pain near the anus
Feeling like you need to have a bowel movement (When tumor is near the anus)
Late Stage Cancer
Anemia due to blood loss from the tumor
Bowel obstruction (Vomiting, bloating, constipation, not passing gas, and pain near the naval)
Yellow Skin/Jaundice (This occurs when the cancer has spread to the liver)
What Causes Colon Cancer?
Researchers are still unsure what causes colon cancer. All they know is that when the healthy cells in the colon change and begin to grow rapidly, colon cancer occurs. It is a normal process for the cells in the body to grow, but cancer cells grow too rapidly and too often. Cancer is when the unhealthy rapidly growing cells overcome the body’s healthy tissue.
Here are some of the factors that may cause colon cancer:
Prior to colon cancer, the colon can develop small growths called polyps. They are finger-like or shaped like a mushroom. If you have a colonoscopy, the doctor can surgically remove them before they become cancerous.
The mutated gene that causes colon cancer can run in families. There are actually less cases of genetic colon cancer, but having the gene does increase the risk of possibly getting colon cancer.Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) causes increased polyps in the colon. This raises the risk of colon cancer in people under the age of 40. Lynch Syndrome raises the risk of colon cancer as well.
There are factors that are known to greatly increase the risk of colon cancer. These include:
Intestinal Disorders such as ulcerative colitis
Smoking and Alcohol use
High-fat and Low-Fiber Diet
Exposure to Radiation
Colon Cancer Screening
If you have increased risk factors for colon cancer, it is important to be screened regularly prior to the age of 50. Anyone 50 or older needs regular screening regardless of risk factors. Here are some helpful guidelines for colon cancer screening:
Fecal occult blood test (gFOBT)
Fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
Every Three Years
Stool DNA testing (sDNA)
Every Five Years
Double-contrast barium enema (High-Risk or history of cancer)
Every Ten Years
Your doctor can tell you which regimen is best for you to follow.
Diagnosing Colon Cancer
If you do not have any symptoms and the doctor finds polyps in your colon during a routine colonoscopy, the polyps will be biopsied to check for cancer. If you do have symptoms the doctor can order the following tests:
Colonoscopy. The doctor can use a scope to look inside the colon for polyps or tumors. During the colonoscopy the doctor can remove any polyps and check to see if they are pre-cancerous or cancerous.
CT Scan. This scan can check the inside of the colon to look for tumors or irregular areas. It can also look to see if the cancer has progressed outside of the colon.
Blood Tests. The doctor can order a few tests that can help, but don’t always diagnose colon cancer. These are a complete blood count (CBC), liver function tests, and tumor markers for colon cancer.
Treating Colon Cancer
Treatment for colon cancer depends on what stage your cancer is at. Colon cancer is staged according to the following guidelines:
Stage 0 The cancer is confined to just the inner lining of the colon. The treatments at this stage include:
Remove Polyps. During a colonoscopy, the doctor will remove any polyps.
Local Excision. Any growths that appear “flat” are removed during colonoscopy.
Open Surgery. If you are at high-risk for cancer and polyps are found to be cancerous, the doctor may discuss surgery to remove part of your colon early on to prevent the spread of cancer.
It is not common to do chemotherapy during Stage 0 colon cancer.
Stage I Stage I colon cancer has spread beyond the inner lining of the colon and into the inside of the colon wall. The treatment at this time is surgery to remove any of the cancerous tissue and some of the healthy tissue outside of the tumor. Doctors do not do chemotherapy at this stage.
The good news is the five-year survival rate at this stage is 93%.
Stage II By this stage, the colon cancer has moved into the muscles inside the wall of the colon. Treatments at this stage include:
Surgery All the cancerous areas are removed, as well as areas of tissue around the cancer.
Chemotherapy In high-risk individuals, chemotherapy is used at this stage to prevent any further spread of cancer or re-occurrence.
At this stage, the five-year survival rate is around 78%.
Stage III At this stage, the cancer is beginning to spread to the lymph nodes from where where it can metastasize to the rest of the body. Stage IIIA means the cancer is still confined to the colon walls, but has reached one or more lymph nodes. Stage IIIB means the cancer has spread outside the colon and into one or more lymph nodes. Treatment at this stage includes:
Surgery Surgery removes the cancerous areas, surrounding tissues and the lymph nodes that were involved.
Chemotherapy Chemotherapy is always used at this stage to kill off any remaining cancer cells in the body.
Radiation If you have a large tumor that moved to any tissue outside the colon, radiation may be used.
If you have four or less lymph nodes involved.
At this stage, the five-year survival rate is around 64%.
Stage IV Stage IV colon cancer has spread outside the colon and into other organs. The organs most often affected are the liver and the lungs. This is known as “metastasis.” The cancer may or may not have spread to the lymph nodes. Treatment at this stage includes:
Surgery Surgery involves removing the affected part of the colon. The colon will be re-attached at the healthy parts. You may also need surgery to remove any cancer from other organs.
Chemotherapy At this stage chemotherapy may not be curative, but can help relieve any symptoms and raise the survival rate.
Clinical Trials Because the survival rate is lower at this stage, your doctor may recommend you for clinical trials of new cancer treatments.
Radiation Radiation can help relieve any cancer symptoms.
The five-year survival rate at this stage is around 8%.
Recurring Colon Cancer This is when colon cancer comes back after treatment. The cancer may come back in the original area of the colon, or appear in another organ. It most often appears in the liver and is most common in people who were treated for more advanced stages of colon cancer. Treatments include:
Latest Research for Colon Cancer
Genetic Research. Genetic testing is being developed to determine the actual colon cancer genes inside the tumor. This can predict the possible response to treatment and if the cancer is at high-risk of spreading.
Cancer Staging Research. Newer more sensitive tests are being developed to check lymph nodes. This may result in cancer being staged later and earlier treatment with chemotherapy.
Less Invasive Surgery. Doctors are now using less invasive surgery that is just as effective as open surgery. They are now able to use laparoscopic surgery and robotic surgery with the same cure rates, less recovery time, and less pain.
Combination Chemotherapy. In people who are less responsive to one type of chemotherapy, doctors now have several types available that are more effective when used in combination.
Targeted Therapy. Doctor’s continue to research targeted therapy as a means to “target” the core of the cancer cells to stop their growth. Once only used for late stage cancer, new research may prove these drugs can be used earlier for better cure rates.
Immunotherapy Research. There is current research in progress to develop a “vaccine-like” substance that helps the body defend itself against cancer.
Lifestyle Changes and Prevention for Colon Cancer
Eat a Healthy Diet. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, increase your fiber intake and reduce red meat.
Reduce Alcohol and Quit Smoking. Limit alcoholic drinks to one or two a day and quit smoking.
Start Exercising and Lose Weight. Get 30 minutes of exercise weekly and keep your weight in a healthy range.
Get Screened for Colon Cancer. Talk to your doctor about which guidelines are best for you.
Alternative Medicine for Colon Cancer
No alternative medicine treatments have been found to cure colon cancer at this time. There are some dietary supplements that may be helpful to relieve symptoms and improve the health of the body. These include:
Selenium. Selenium may help cancer treatments work better.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega-3 is an anti-inflammatory and may lower the risk of colon cancer. Eat fish at least twice weekly to get this nutrient.
Ginseng Tea. May slow cancer growth.
Olive Oil. Some studies show that olive oil may protect the digestive system from cancer.
Spices. There are some spices that may prevent the growth of cancer cells in the colon. These include garlic, rosemary, thyme, peppermint, and turmeric.
Only a doctor can diagnose and treat colon cancer. If you want to use alternative or complimentary medicine, be sure to discuss this with your doctor.
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