Colon Cancer: Symptoms, Stages, Causes, Medicines & Treatments
Commonly asked questions about colon cancer:
- What is colon cancer?
- Colon cancer risk factors
- Colon cancer causes
- Colon cancer symptoms
- Colon cancer treatments
- How to prevent cancer
- What drugs are used to treat colon cancer?
What Is Colon Cancer?
Originating in the lower part of the digestive system, formally known as the large intestine or colon, colon cancer is a prominent form of cancer that affects thousands of Americans every year. Within the category of colon cancer, an individual is also susceptible to rectal cancer, a form of cancer that exclusively effects an area defined by the last few inches of the colon.
These cancers together are often referred to as colorectal cancers due to their similarity in area and development. In most reported cases, colon cancer first develops as a small noncancerous cell clump called an adenomatous polyp.
With the colon responsible for digestion, absorbing water and nutrients while storing waste, any disease acting to disrupt its ability to function properly can have disastrous effects on a person.
Although it can have a profound effect on one’s health, colon cancer typically does not produce noticeable symptoms, leading to most doctors recommending that their patients undergo regular screening tests. Screening methods, including colonoscopies and fecal occult blood tests, being widely available to Americans has led the death rate for colorectal cancer to steadily decrease in the last decade.
While deaths have decreased, the amount of diagnosed cases has not experienced a similar trend as colorectal cancer is routinely ranked as the third most common cancer in all Americans.
According to the American Cancer Society, over 95,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer each year with an additional 39,000 diagnosed with rectal cancer. In total, over 134,000 Americans may be diagnosed with a colorectal cancer each year, an astounding number of yearly cases.
Regarding survival rates, each stage of colon cancer detection comes with its own survival rates. Those with stage 1 colon cancer see a 5-year survival rate of 92%, various subgroups of stage II see their rate range from 63-87%, stage III patients range from 53-89%, while metastic cancers typically only have a survival rate of 11%.
Colon Cancer Risk Factors
Who Is At Risk Of Developing Colon Cancer?
Like all forms of non-gender specific cancer, anyone is at risk of developing colon cancer, however, there are factors that if relevant to an individuals life may indicate higher susceptibility to colon cancer than is standard.
These factors, called risk factors, include actions and lifestyle choices that can be controlled by an individual as well as elements of ones life that may be completely out of their control.
While risk factors indicate a greater likelihood of developing colon cancer, they do not indicate a causation relationship. Risk factors simply carry a correlative relationship with colon cancer with the rate increasing as more factors apply to an individual at higher degrees of extremity.
Age is extremely influential in the development of colon cancer as more than 90% of diagnosed cases of colon cancer occur in patients older than 50. In fact, reports indicate that the average age for colon cancer diagnosis’ is 72.
Additionally, different races and ethnic backgrounds routinely carry their own varying rates of colon cancer diagnosis. While the medical reasons remain unknown, African Americans face the highest death and development rate of colon cancer out of all racial groups in the United States.
Regarding ethnic backgrounds, medical data has also indicated that Ashkenazi Jews carry the highest colon cancer rate in the world due to several gene mutations common in people of this background.
Various aspects of an individuals medical history can also indicate a higher risk of colon cancer. Medical occurrences like past colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and type 2 diabetes
If an individual suffers from any of these conditions, their risk of colon cancer will be exceptionally higher than that of the standard individual.
Family medical history and inherited genetics can play a major factor in determining one’s risk of colon cancer, as data indicates that those with colon cancer in the family tend to develop it more often than those who do not.
Medical conditions that can indicate an elevated risk rate includes colorectal cancer and one of a number of various inherited syndromes.These syndromes include attenuated FAP, Gardner syndrome, Lynch syndrome, Turcot syndrome, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, and MUTYH-associated polyposis.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is vital for any individual who weeks to lower their cancer risk across the board, especially colon cancer. This is because those who are overweight or obese routinely find themselves developing fatal colon cancer at far higher rates than those who are not overweight.
This is also connected to maintaining an active rather than sedentary lifestyle. Regarding diet, those with diets rich in red and processed meats and meals cooked at high temperatures report higher rates of colon cancer.
As is true for most forms of cancer, use of certain recreational substances can lead to an elevated rate of colon cancer development. These substances mostly include excessive use of alcohol or tobacco.
Excessive users of these products may suffer from colon cancer with a faster development process leading to a higher risk of fatal colon cancer being diagnosed.
How Can I Reduce My Risk Of Colon Cancer?
To minimize the risk of colon cancer, an individual should work to counteract or neutralize any risk factors that may plague them. Efforts to do this may include the following:
- Maintain Healthy Diet (Fruits, Vegetables, Whole Grains)
- Limit Alcohol Consumption
- Refrain From Smoking
- Promote Daily Exercise
- Maintain Healthy Weight
These efforts, if pursued, will help lower an individuals risk of developing colon cancer. However, there is no way to eliminate the risk of colon cancer as these efforts only work to reduce the risk, not eliminate it.
Colon Cancer Causes
How Do I Get Colon Cancer?
Similar to medical knowledge of other forms of cancer, a definitive answer to “what causes colon cancer” has yet to be determined by the medical community. While the medical community is aware that the cancer develops when the colon develops errors in it’s DNA, it is not known what triggers the DNA errors.
Although what causes the DNA errors may not be known, the process that immediately follows the error is. Once the error has occurred, the cells will begin to reproduce at an unstable rate with lifespans that far exceed what typical cells can handle.
With the body unable to reject the cells or prevent the increased production, the cells will grow at this rate and accumulate into a mass known as a tumor. As the tumor grows in size, the cells will spread over time to other tissue and organs, corrupting those areas as they go.
Colon Cancer Symptoms
A trait colon cancer shares with other abdomen based cancers is that symptoms rarely develop until the cancer has entered advanced stages of development – if ever. This lack of noticeable symptoms has led to most medical professionals recommending that their patients undergo regular screening tests to detect the cancer early if it’s development cycle has begun.
However, while rare and potentially not noticeable to the average individual, there are symptoms that individuals should be vigilant of. These symptoms should warrant an immediate conversation with a medical professional, but a lack of them does not mean colon cancer is not present in the body.
The most prominent symptoms associated with colon cancer includes:
- Change In Bowel Habits
- Persistent Abdominal Discomfort
- Rectal Bleeding
- Weakness & Fatigue
- Unexplained Weight Loss
Colon Cancer Treatments
How Can Colon Cancer Be Treated?
If an individual is diagnosed with colon cancer, their doctor may choose to pursue a variety of options in an attempt to best treat their condition. Each option comes with its own benefits and risks, but the medical team assigned to treat the cancer will be able to make a determination that best serves their patient.
Of these treatment options, a surgeon can perform any number of colon cancer specific procedures that will aim to remove the organ or the cancer risk from the body.
However, in the event that surgery is not pursued or other measures must be taken before surgery, an individual can be treated with standard cancer treatment methods, including:
- Radiation Therapy
- Targeted Drug Therapy
More information on the aforementioned treatment options can be found here.
Treatment For Early-Stage Cancer
Removing polyps can occur during a colonoscopy if they are detected during the procedure. This treatment effort is minimally invasive and can only be pursued when the cancer is early in development and is isolated in a polyp. Once detected, a medical professional may be able to remove the cancer completely.
Endoscopic Mucosal Resection
If a polyp reaches a larger size it can still be handled during a routine colonoscopy, but cancer removal may also include healthy surrounding colon lining. This surgery is still defined as minimally invasive, but removes some lining to eliminate the fear that the cancer may have spread unbeknownst to the individual.
Minimally Invasive Surgery
In the event that a polyp cannot be removed during a colonoscopy because of immense size, a surgeon may choose to pursue a laparoscopic surgery. This minimally invasive procedure involves the surgeon inserting instruments with cameras into the body through several minor incisions of the abdominal wall.
During this surgery, all polyps and cancerous areas can be removed if they are within their early stages of development. If it is determined to be a necessary precaution, a doctor may choose to take samples from lymph nodes to confirm the status of cancer metastasis.
Treatment For Invasive Cancer
This procedure and all that follow are reserved for situations in which the cancer has spread throughout the colon and can no longer be treated by simple removal of polyps. A partial colectomy involves a surgeon removing the cancerous area of the colon in addition to surrounding tissue to minimize the risk of spread.
Once the cancerous area has been removed, the surgeon will then reconnect the health areas of the organ to allow the body to function as normal.
Create Waste Disposal
If it is not possible to reconnect various areas of the organ, a surgeon may create a colostimy – area that allows waste to leave body. This is done by opening a wall in the abdomen with waste then being expelled from the body into a special bag located on the outside of the body.
This situation can be used as a temporary measure to give the organs time to heal, although some situations leave it being permanent.
Lymph Node Removal
Regardless of the type of surgery pursued, lymph nodes are almost always removed during surgery as a precautionary measure. This is for testing to determine the ability of the cancer to spread in addition to ensuring that cancer cannot use the nodes as a method to spread.
How to Prevent Cancer
Cancer prevention can vary based on different research, and opinionated studies or news reports. However, these simple lifestyle changes can make a difference in the prevention of developing or forming cancer.
- Eat healthy
- Limit or stop your use of tobacco
- Have a balanced lifestyle
- Avoid risky behavior
- Visit your doctor
- Protect your skin from the sun
What Drugs are Used to Treat Colon Cancer?
The following drugs and medications are in some way related to, or used in the treatment of colon cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute:
- Fluorouracil Injection
- Irinotecan Hydrochloride
- Leucovorin Calcium
- Trifluride and Tipiracil Hydrochloride