Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in the colon (large intestine) or rectum. Both of these organs are in the lower portion of your digestive system. Issues with the colon may present symptoms such as bloating, gas, pain, constipation, or diarrhea.
What is colon cancer?
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Most colorectal cancers start as a growth on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. These growths are called polyps. Some types of polyps can change into cancer over time (usually many years), but not all polyps become cancer. As with any cancer, the longer the delay in treatment, the greater the danger. The good news is that deaths from this disease have declined compared with a decade ago, and early detection is one reason.
How to detect and diagnose colon cancer?
A diagnosis of colorectal cancer in its early stages gives you the best chance of curing it.
The American College of Physicians (ACP) recommends screenings for people who are 50 to 75 years old and at average risk of the condition. To diagnose colorectal cancer, your doctor will start by getting information about your medical and family history. They’ll also perform a physical exam. Afterward, you may undergo one or more of these tests to confirm your diagnosis:
- Fecal testing: You may undergo fecal testing every 1 to 2 years. Fecal tests are used to detect hidden blood in your stool. There are two main types, the guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) and the fecal immunochemical test (FIT).
- X-ray: Your doctor may order a colon X-ray using a radioactive contrast solution that contains the chemical element barium. Your doctor inserts this liquid into your bowels through the use of a barium enema. Once in place, the barium solution coats the lining of the colon.
- CT scan: Colon CT scans provide your doctor with a detailed image of your colon. A CT scan that’s used to diagnose colorectal cancer is sometimes called a virtual colonoscopy or ct colonography.
- Blood testing: Your doctor may run some blood tests to get a better idea of what’s causing your symptoms. Liver function tests and complete blood counts can rule out other diseases and disorders.
What are the stages of colon cancer?
Your doctor may use staging as a guideline to figure out how far along the cancer is. It’s important for your doctor to know the stage of cancer so they can come up with the best treatment plan for you and give you an estimate of your long-term outlook.
Stage 0 colorectal cancer is the earliest stage, and stage 4 is the most advanced stage:
- Stage 0: In this stage, abnormal cells are only in the inner lining of the colon or rectum and have not spread anywhere else.
- Stage 1: The cancer has penetrated the lining of the colon or rectum and may have grown into the muscle layer. It hasn’t spread to nearby lymph nodes or to other parts of the body.
- Stage 2: The cancer has spread to the walls of the colon or rectum or through the walls to nearby tissues but hasn’t affected the lymph nodes.
- Stage 3: The cancer has moved to the lymph nodes but not to other parts of the body.
- Stage 4: The cancer has spread to other distant organs, such as the liver or lungs.
What is the treatment for colon cancer?
Treatment of colorectal cancer depends on a variety of factors. The state of your overall health and the stage of your colorectal cancer will help your doctor create a treatment plan.
In the earliest stages of colorectal cancer, it might be possible for your surgeon to remove cancerous polyps through surgery. If your cancer has spread into your bowel walls, your surgeon may need to remove a portion of the colon or rectum along with any neighboring lymph nodes.
Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. For people with colorectal cancer, chemotherapy commonly takes place after surgery, when it’s used to destroy any lingering cancerous cells. Chemotherapy also controls the growth of tumors.
Radiation uses a powerful beam of energy, similar to that used in X-rays, to target and destroy cancerous cells before and after surgery. Radiation therapy commonly occurs alongside chemotherapy.
- Other medications
Targeted therapies and immunotherapies may also be recommended.
To learn more about colon cancer, please contact your primary care provider.
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