For many Americans, colorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer, is a very intimidating and frightening topic to discuss. With colorectal cancer being the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States, taking the time to understand the preventative actions available is essential to stopping the cancer before it starts.
What is colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer begins in the colon or rectum. Depending on where these cancers initially develop, they can also be referred to as rectal or colon cancer. Most colorectal cancers mature over several years, beginning as a growth of tissue or tumor referred to as a non-cancerous polyp. Polyps are found on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Polyps can develop into cancer, but not all do.
What are common colorectal cancer symptoms?
According to the American Cancer Society, many individuals may not experience colorectal cancer symptoms during its early stages. Therefore, it is highly encouraged to get yourself, or a loved one, screened. Potential colorectal cancer symptoms could consist of:
- Rectal bleeding
- Unintended weight loss
- Weakness and fatigue
- Blood in the stool
- A change in bowel habits that lasts more than a few days
What are the stages of colon cancer?
The process associated with finding out if cancer has spread to the colon or other parts of the body is called staging. The information that is gathered during the staging process determines the exact stage of the disease. It is critical to know the stage of illness to plan the treatment accordingly.
- Stage 0: The colon cancer is limited and confined to the mucosa of the colon wall.
- Stage I: The colon cancer is a bit more advanced, but still constricted to the colon wall.
- Stage II: The colon cancer has broken through the colon wall, but has not spread to any nearby organs.
- Stage III: The colon cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
- Stage IV: The cancer has spread through the colon wall to nearby organs that could include the lungs, liver, ovaries and lymph nodes.
What are the treatments for colon cancer?
When determining the treatment necessary for colon cancer, it heavily depends on which stage the cancer is in. There are three primary treatment options consisting of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. If you are in the early stages of colon cancer and your cancer is minor, your doctor may be able to remove it completely through a colonoscopy. However, if your cancer has grown into or through your colon, it may be recommended to have a partial colectomy that will remove a part of your colon containing the cancer.
On the condition that your cancer has progressed or your overall health has become very poor, you may receive a recommendation to have an operation to relieve the blockage from your colon. This surgery is not to cure the cancer, but instead relieves side effects such as pain and bleeding. If cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, chemotherapy uses drugs to rid the body of cancer after surgery has taken place. Lastly, radiation therapy uses intense energy sources, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells that could remain after the surgery.
What are the stages of rectal cancer?
- Stage 0: The tumor is exclusively positioned in the inner lining of the rectum.
- Stage I: The tumor has broken through the inner lining of the rectum, but has not moved past the muscular wall.
- Stage II: The tumor has punctured through the bowel wall and could potentially invade other organs, such as the bladder, uterus or prostate gland.
- Stage III: The tumor has extended to the lymph nodes.
- Stage IV: The tumor has dispersed to distant parts of the body, most often to the liver and lung.
What are the treatments for rectal cancer?
When it comes to rectal cancer, treatment options may vary. Treatment depends on how large the tumor may have grown, how deep it has invaded the wall of the rectum and if it has spread to the lymph nodes or other organs. There are three primary options depending on how advanced the cancer may be, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Depending on the location and progression of the cancer, surgery alone could be sufficient cancer treatment. However, when rectal cancer has spread to surrounding tissue or lymph nodes, specialists recommend chemotherapy or radiation to shrink the tumor, making it easier to perform surgery.
Estimated colorectal cancer statistics for 2015:
- 93,090 new cases of colon cancer
- 39,610 new cases of rectal cancer
- 49,700 deaths from colorectal cancer
How can colorectal cancer be prevented?
Surprisingly, approximately half of deaths due to colon cancer each year could be avoided if those aged 50 and older were to be screened for colon cancer. Since colorectal cancer normally begins with a polyp, doctors can remove the polyp before it becomes cancerous. Although some may be unable to prevent colon cancer, over 90% of those diagnosed during the early stages survive more than five years.
While many of us struggle to take time out of our busy schedules for ourselves, it is necessary to prioritize preventative care. Colorectal cancer can be avoided with regular screenings, which is especially important for those who do not experience colorectal cancer symptoms.
In addition to making time for colorectal cancer screenings, understanding the different screening methods, and when you are due for them, is essential.
The most common screenings:
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy - every five years
- CT colonography (CTC) - every five years
- Double-contrast barium enema (DCBE) - every five years
- Colonoscopy - every ten years
Have no fear!
One option that tends to be discussed far less than traditional cancer screenings is testing your stool for cancer. Many are terrified when they think about the screening process associated with colon cancer, such as a colonoscopy. However, testing your stool is a non-invasive option for detecting cancer. These tests are easier to perform, though they are less likely to detect polyps. If you choose to perform a stool test and the results come back positive, a follow-up colonoscopy is necessary.
Fortunately, the death rate has been dropping for both men and women with colorectal cancer within the last 20 years. This is primarily associated with polyps being found during screenings and being removed before developing into cancer. Due to this screening process and more men and women finding their cancer in early stages, there have been more than 1 million colorectal cancer survivors in the United States.
Who needs to be tested?
Individuals age 50 or older should be screened for colorectal cancer. This recommendation is due to the heightened risk of cancer with increasing age and because many overlook early colorectal cancer symptoms. More than 90% of cases are found in those who are age 50 and older. If colorectal cancer runs in your family, talk to your doctor today to schedule a screening.
What are the risk factors associated with colorectal cancer?
There are many risk factors associated with colorectal cancers such as certain diets, age, physical inactivity and obesity. However, risk factors don’t guarantee the development of cancer. If an individual does have colorectal cancer, it is challenging to know how heavily that risk factor contributed to the cancer. To decrease your likelihood of developing colorectal cancer, become familiar with the main ways to reduce your risk and the risk of your loved ones.
9 ways to reduce your risk:
- Maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle
- Consume sufficient amounts of calcium and vitamin D
- Avoid binge drinking
- Consume limited amounts of red meat
- Choose whole grains and refined grain products
- Avoid smoking or tobacco use
- Know your family history
- Get screened
Get screened today!
UnityPoint Health wants to make sure that you and your loved ones take every preventable measure necessary when it comes to detecting signs of colorectal cancer. If you have further questions or feel that you may be at risk, directly message your primary care doctor using MyUnityPoint.