Overview and Facts
Colon cancer is a cancer that starts in the large intestine, or colon, which is part of the digestive system. A similar type of cancer is rectal cancer, which affects the last inches of the colon, or the rectum. Together, these cancers are known as colorectal cancer. Cancer of the colon and rectum are third most common when compared to other cancers, and about 150,000 cases are diagnosed every year. Colon cancer typically begins as small clumps of cells called polyps. Polyps are usually benign, but certain types can be cancerous.
Stages of colon cancer:
- Stage 0: Very early cancer on the innermost lining of the colon
- Stage I: Cancer has spread to the other inner layers of the colon
- Stage II: Cancer has extended through the muscular wall of the colon
- Stage III: Cancer has spread outside the colon to the lymph nodes
- Stage IV: Cancer has spread to other organs
Signs and Symptoms
Colon cancer is known for striking without producing symptoms, as the polyps that cause colon cancer are small and don’t usually produce symptoms. For this reason, doctors recommend getting screenings. However, colon cancer can sometimes produce symptoms such as:
- Blood in the stool
- Lower abdominal pain
- Change in bowel habits, including diarrhea and constipation
- A feeling that the bowel has not completely emptied
- Unexplained weight loss
Causes and Diagnosis
Doctors don’t quite know exactly what causes colon cancer. Like other cancers, colon cancer happens when healthy cells experience exaggerated growth. Colon cancer begins in glands in the lining of the colon. Nearly all colon cancers will begin as polyps. Polyps are usually benign, meaning they are not cancerous, but there is one type that is known to be precancerous. This type of polyp is called an adenomatous polyp. The size of polyp can indicate the chances of it turning cancerous – those 2 cm or larger have a 40% chance of developing into colon cancer.
There are other risk factors that can increase the risk of getting colon cancer.
- Having a family history of colon cancer
- Certain genetic syndromes, including familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), Lynch Syndrome and Gardner Syndrome
- Personal history of cancer elsewhere in the body, particularly breast cancer
- Being older than age 60
- Being of eastern European descent and African-American
- Have other diseases such as Crohn’s disease
- Eating a lot of red meat
- Drinking alcohol (more than four drinks per week)
- A high-fat, low-fiber diet
- Heavy exposure to chemicals such as chlorine and asbestos
An early diagnosis of colon cancer can be life saving as it is most curable when treated before symptoms develop. Doctors recommend that after age 50, everyone, both men and women, get regular screenings for colon cancer.The main way doctors screen for colon cancer is by performing a colonoscopy, which is an internal examination of the colon and rectum. In a colonoscopy, doctors use a colonoscope, which consists of a flexible tube with a camera attached. The colonoscope is inserted through the anus and gently moved to the lowest part of the small bowel so it can be examined. Upon removal, tissue samples may be removed along with any polyps, and photographs may also be taken.
In addition to a colonoscopy, a doctor may also take blood tests, and if the initial examination indicates the chance of colon cancer, more tests will be done to see if the cancer has spread.
Tests and Treatment Options
Treatment of colon cancer is largely determined on the stage of cancer. For patients with Stage 0 cancer, colon cancer treatment may just require the cancer cells to be removed, and this can even be done during a colonoscopy.
When colon cancer is in Stage I or II, surgery is usually required in order to remove the cancerous part of the colon and any necessary surrounding tissue.
When colon cancer has advanced to Stage III, the patient will typically first have surgery to remove the cancerous tumor and any lymph nodes that have been affected. After surgery, they will usually receive chemotherapy with 5-FU and leucovorin for about 6-8 months.
There are several treatment options for Stage IV colon cancer, and many patients receive a combination of colon cancer treatment methods, including:
- Surgically removing the cancer
- Performing surgery on any other parts of the body that the cancer has affected
- Antibodies such as Erbitux, Vectibix or Avastin
Helpful Tips and Home Remedies
For some, colon cancer has a clear reason for developing, such as having a family history. But that isn’t the case for all colon cancer patients. And without knowing the exact cause, it is hard to determine a way to prevent colon cancer, but there are a few things that can be done with the effort of preventing colon cancer from developing:
- Follow a healthy diet. It is thought that a high-fat, low-fiber diet can be a contributing factor to developing colon cancer. This includes a diet high in red meat. Reduce the fat in your diet and increase fruits and vegetables to get more fiber and be healthier overall.
- Be active. Get 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week.
- Take aspirin. Some research supports the idea that aspirin can help stop cancer cells from multiplying and help reduce the size of polyps in the colon. However, not everyone should start taking aspirin to reduce a colon cancer risk; you should discuss it with your doctor if you believe you are at risk for colon cancer.
- Don’t smoke or drink alcohol. It increases the risk of getting colon cancer. If you do drink alcohol, limit the amount to four or fewer drinks per week.