Definition and Overview
Colon cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the large intestine (colon). It usually begins as small adenomataus polyps, which are noncancerous. However, as these grow they can take on cancerous properties. Polyps can also form in the large intestine, but only a few inches from the lower part. In these cases, the cancer is referred to as colorectal cancer.
Symptoms of Colon Cancer
When colon cancer is still in the early stages, there will not likely be any symptoms at all. Symptoms will appear once the cancer develops, and these can include:
- Weight loss
- Frequent gas, abdominal pain or cramps
- Blood in the stool or from the rectum
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Incomplete bowel discharge
When to see your doctor
If you start noticing frequency of one or more of the symptoms described above, you should see your doctor to undergo colon cancer screening. It would also be a smart decision to undergo this type of cancer screening if you’re 50 years old or above, even if you don’t notice any of the symptoms. Bear in mind that colon cancer in its early stages may not display any symptoms. You should also undergo colon cancer screening if you have a history of cancer in your family.
Causes of Colon Cancer
The exact causes of colon cancer have not been discovered to date, only the way they spread. The body’s healthy cells need to grow and divide so that the body continues to be healthy. However, this process does not only occur in healthy cells, even damaged cells will continue to divide and spread. This is how cancer cells spread to other organs.
Colon cancer can also be inherited, which is why you’ll need to consult your doctor about this if there’s a history of this disease in the family. Inherited colon cancer comes in two forms; Familial adenomataus polyposis (FAP), and Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC). The FAP type is a bit more concerning since people with this type of cancer usually develop thousands of polyps, and any one of them can turn out to be cancerous before the person reaches 40.
Are you at risk?
Colon cancer has numerous risk factors associated with it. These include obesity, smoking, diabetes, sedentary lifestyle, alcohol consumption, radiation cancer therapy, low fiber diet, family history, inflammatory diseases of the intestine, and old age. If you have one or more of these factors, the higher your risk of having this type of cancer.
Which doctor should you see?
The first doctor you should see if you notice any of the symptoms or if you’re concerned about having the risk factors and want to undergo cancer screening is your physician. Your doctor will assess your situation and refer you to a specialist. The specialist can be a gastroenterologist (specialist in digestive diseases), an oncologist (cancer specialist), a surgeon, or a radiation oncologist (specializes in radiation cancer treatment).
Your doctor will likely ask you a series of questions, like if you’ve noticed any symptoms, when you first started noticing them, or if you have any family history. Make sure that you’re ready with the answers.
What to expect
Your doctor or a specialist will then perform tests in order to provide a diagnosis. These tests typically include colonoscopy, or CT colonoscopy. In a colonoscopy test, the doctor will view the insides of your colon and rectum using a long slender tube with a video camera. The doctor may then want to take a tissue sample if there is anything suspicious in the area. CT Colonoscopy makes use of virtual images and is mostly recommended for people who are unable to undergo a regular colonoscopy.
Colon Cancer Stages
If your doctor confirms that you do in fact have colon cancer, the first course of action is to determine the stage of the cancer.
- Stage I colon cancer refers to cancers that have not spread.
- Stage II is when the cancer has penetrated through the colon or rectum wall, but has not spread to the lymph nodes.
- Stage III is when the cancer has infected the lymph nodes but has not spread to other body parts
- Stage IV is when the cancer has already spread to other organs.
Once your doctor has determined the stage of the cancer, the next step is to create a treatment plan. If the cancer is still in its early stages (stage I) there is a chance that it can be removed during a colonoscopy. If not, the doctor will need to recommend a laparoscopic surgery procedure.
If the cancer has reached stage II, the doctor will likely recommend a partial colectomy, a procedure that involves removing the part of your colon that has cancer.
If the cancer is determined to be in the advanced stages, or when the cancer has begun to block your colon, the surgery will be to remove the blockage, but only to reduce the symptoms. To treat the cancer, the doctor will recommend chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or targeted drug therapy. It’s important to understand that none of the treatment methods for advanced stage colon cancer comes with a guarantee. Each method has advantages, disadvantages and risks that you should be aware of before deciding to undergo any treatment. You should ask your doctor what those risks are.
Since the exact causes of colon cancer have not yet been discovered, there is no way to prevent it. However, you can reduce the risks of having this type of cancer by applying simple lifestyle changes. These can include, increasing your intake of fruits, whole grains, and vegetables, decreasing your alcohol intake, quit smoking, increasing daily exercises, and maintaining your ideal weight. It has been thought that cancer is also a result of high levels of toxins in the body. Antioxidants can play an important role in preventing the occurrence of cancer, whether originating in the colon or any other body part.