What is colon cancer?
Colon cancer is cancer of the large intestine, also known as the colon. The colon is the final part of the digestive tract and the most susceptible to abnormal growths. Most cases of colon cancer begin as noncancerous polyps, but over time some of these polyps form into colon cancer. The problem is that polyps are so small that they produce few—if any—symptoms. As a result, it is recommended that patients have regular screenings to detect the disease at its earliest stages before any polyps even have the chance to become cancerous. Colon cancer screenings are recommended to begin at age 50 and end at age 75 by the American Cancer Society. The most successful procedure for early colon cancer detection is the colonoscopy.
What are the signs and symptoms of colon cancer?
Regular detection for colon cancer is so critical because the disease produces symptoms that are extremely common in other mild gastrointestinal diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Signs and symptoms of colon cancer can include (but are not limited to):
- A change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea and constipation, lasting for an extended period of time
- A sensation that the bowel doesn’t empty completely
- Blood in stool
- Persistent abdominal discomfort lasting several weeks
- Rectal bleeding
- Sudden weight loss
- Weakness or fatigue
How is colon cancer detected?
The colonoscopy procedure is considered the gold standard in colon cancer detection, but it is not the only way physicians can screen. Other options include:
- Computed tomography (CT) colonography
- Double-contrast barium enema
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy
- Guaiac-based fecal occult blood test
- Stool DNA test
Patients should speak with a physician about the best detection method based on individual needs. While all of the options above will detect if colon cancer is present, the colonoscopy procedure is the only one that removes the polyps before they have a chance to become cancerous.
How is colon cancer treated?
Treatment for colon cancer is dependent on what stage the cancer is in, as well as the patient’s overall health. Options include:
If the cancer is in the early stages, small and contained within a polyp, it can be removed during a colonoscopy. A larger polyp may require an endoscopic mucosal resection (EMR) in order to be removed and any mass bigger than that may be removed through laparoscopic surgery.
However, if the cancer has developed in other parts of the colon, the infected portion(s) will need to be removed and the healthy ends attached together. If that is not possible, patients may need a temporary or permanent colostomy. With a colostomy, waste from the bowels is emptied into a bag on the outside of the body.
For advanced stages of cancer, surgery to relieve a colon blockage may be recommended to alleviate symptoms, such as bleeding or pain. It is not performed to remove or eradicate the cancer in any way.
Chemotherapy can be given:
- For relieving symptoms in cases where the cancer has spread to other parts of the body
- In order to shrink a mass prior to surgery
- To patients following surgery if the cancer has moved to the lymph nodes
For more information about colon cancer or to schedule an appointment with one of our specialists, contact us today.