What is Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer is a disease of the colon which occurs when cancerous tumors are formed. Most cases start as a growth on the inner linings of the colon, these developments are called polyps.
You are more likely to develop this type of cancer as you get older. However other factors which increase your chances include: being overweight, smoking, ethnic origin, alcohol and a family history of the disease. (1)
Unfortunately colon cancer is very common. It’s estimated the US will see over 90 thousand new cases during 2018. (2)
The colon is a large muscular tube which along with the rectum, makes up the large intestine. This part of digestive tract extracts water and salts from waste before it leaves the body.
Sometimes colon and rectum cancer can have similar traits hence why it’s often referred to as colorectal cancer. There are also five types of these cancers, but the most common is adenocarcinomas, which happens in over 90 percent of cases. (3)
Colon cancer can be picked up through the help of screening. This process can detect cancers earlier, in some cases even before symptoms are showing. If spotted in its early stages prognosis is deemed more successful and is normally a lot easier to treat.
Some polyps may take years to develop cancer, therefore regular screening and knowing what symptoms to look out for is key.
Symptoms of colon cancer can be similar to those of other conditions or infections which is why if you have any concerns getting checked out by a doctor is always the best practice.
Colon cancer might not cause symptoms from the outset and those who develop the condition will not experience exactly the same signs either. A person generally encounters a few of the symptoms mentioned below. (4)
Shift in Bowel Habits
Every person has different bowel habits. These consist of how often we need to go, our control of movements plus the color and consistency of stools.
A sign of colon cancer can be a sudden change in your bathroom routine. You might experience diarrhea (runny stool), constipation (hard stool) or narrowing of stools, which is when the poop appear thinner than normal. (5)
If narrowing of stools and a change in color persists for prolonged periods it could be an indicator that something sinister is forming in the colon.
Stomach Discomfort or Cramps
Discomfort or cramps in the stomach can be typical everyday symptom to come across. For example, it can be the result of a poor diet, food intolerance or stress among others.
However, if the discomfort doesn’t subside as a result of the bowel movement or the cramping gets worse it’s important to contact your physician. This could be an indicator of a more serious condition such as colon cancer. (6)
Blood in Stool
Blood can appear in the stools for different reasons. Sometimes it’s due to hemorrhoids, a small tear in the rectum (anul fissure) or it could be a split further up the intestine.
However, if the color of the stool is darker than normal it could indicate something is changing inside the colon. (7)
If blood appears in the stool it’s very important to contact your doctor to determine the cause of bleeding.
Unexplained Fatigue, Weakness or Weight Loss
If you suddenly experience fatigue, weakness or even unintended weight loss, it could be an indicator of iron deficiency anemia, this can be a sign of colorectal cancer. This can be caused by prolonged bleeding, in this case from the rectum. (8, 9)
In these cases the skin may appear pale, and an overwhelming feeling of tiredness and weakness may follow. It can even lead to unintended weight loss.
Take heed if energy levels drop or you start losing weight for no apparent reason. These are warning signs of many illnesses therefore it’s best to get checked out.
After the diagnosis of colon cancer is confirmed, it’s important for doctors to determine which stage the cancer is in.
Staging of colon cancer works to detect how much cancer is in the body. This will also help the doctors determine the severity and outlook for the patient.
It can be scary to be diagnosed with cancer, but staging can help ease your mind and prepare you for what might come next.
There are five main stages of colon cancer starting from zero to four, some of these stages also have subdivisions. Below is listed a general explanation of the stages including their subcategories. (10)
This is a pre-cancer stage. It’s where abnormal cells have been found in the mucosa, the innermost layer of the colon wall. These cells may or may not become cancerous.
When the cancer is found in the mucosa as well as the layer of tissues underneath it (submucosa) it’s considered to be a stage I colon cancer.
The cancer may have spread to the muscle layer in the colon, but otherwise hasn’t spread any further.
The cancer has now spread through the muscle layer to the outermost layer of the colon wall. Other cases in this stage can involve the cancer spreading to the outside of the outermost layer or through the layers and to nearby organs.
In this stage the cancer has spread through the outer wall of the colon and to nearby organs and tissues. It has also reached surrounding lymph nodes and spread to the muscle layer.
This stage can also involve cancer spreading to different nearby organs.
This is the most severe stage of colon cancer. It has spread to lymph nodes and other organs. This is the phase where the cancer is now travelling through the blood to further organs beyond the abdomen.
There are different treatments available for patients with colon cancer. How these are decided upon and used depends on what stage your cancer is at. (11)
Colon cancer can be treated by using local treatments which only affect the cancer in a specific place. Alternatively it can be treated with systemic treatments that attack larger areas.
Surgery is a common treatment of colon cancer, where the doctor will remove the cancer from the affected area. (12)
This can be done in any stage, although it is most successful during the earlier stages.
Removement of the cancer in the colon can be done using different techniques. In the early stages it can be removed by a tube fitted with a cutting tool that’s inserted through the rectum.
Other surgical procedures may involve removing sections of the colon. If the cancer is in advanced stages other treatments will be used afterwards to kill off any remaining cancer cells.
During this treatment a probe (a surgical instrument) will be inserted either through the skin or through an incision in the abdomen.
When the probe reaches the required place it will discharge tiny electrodes which kill the cancer cells.
In this treatment the doctor will use an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal and unwanted tissues.
Chemotherapy is a treatment involving anti-cancer drugs which work to either kill the cancer or prevent them from advancing.
Depending on how the drugs are taken, either by mouth, through muscles and veins, or directly to the affected area, they can treat the whole body or a specific place. (13)
The way the drugs are given also depends on which stage the cancer is in.
This treatment uses radiation to kill the cancer cells or keep them from growing. It can be done using high energy x-rays or other kinds of radiation.
There are two types of radiation therapy: external and internal radiation therapy. (14)
External radiation therapy is used more as a relief for symptoms. Where internal radiation works directly or near the cancerous cells.
This treatment works on the targeted areas without harming surrounding tissues. It uses medicines and other substances to identify and kill off the cancer cells.
There are a few different types of targeted therapy of which can be used alongside chemotherapy or in some cases they may work where chemo has failed.
Side effects of targeted therapy are different and often less severe than those of chemotherapy. Talk with your doctor about the best options for you.
What is colon cancer? Colon cancer is a disease affecting the large intestine.
What are the signs of colon cancer? Common signs of colon cancer can include: a change in bowel habits, stomach discomfort and cramps or a change in color or blood in the stool
How do you develop colon cancer? Colon cancer is believed to be caused by mutations in the DNA which make the cells grow out of control. Risk factors include inactivity, a poor diet, obesity, smoking or genetics. (15)
How are you diagnosed for colon cancer? This disease can be found early with the help of a screening test. For people who show symptoms doctors can diagnose the illness by asking about medical history, followed by a physical exam. Further testing can include blood tests, a diagnostic colonoscopy, a biopsy or imaging test. (16)
What is the best treatment for colon cancer? The best treatment depends on which stage your cancer is in. In early stages surgery can remove the cancer before it has a chance to spread. Your doctor will help you find the best treatment for your situation.
What are the long term complications of colon cancer? Long term complications can point towards the cancer recurring. Side effects of treatment usually subside once discontinued. However, people who survive colorectal cancer do have a higher risk of developing another type of cancer later on. (17)
Is colon cancer considered a disability? No it’s not considered to be a disability.
Is there a cure for colon cancer? Yes early detection, or otherwise with the right treatment, colon cancer can be cured.
Is colon cancer life threatening? If it remains untreated or the cancer is in advanced stages and does not respond to treatments, unfortunately it can be fatal.
Colon cancer is a disease which forms in the colon and large intestine, it can also happen in cohesion with rectal cancer (colorectal cancer).
Your risk of colon cancer can be drastically reduced simply by leading a healthier lifestyle and following a better diet. Eating more fruit and vegetables, quitting smoking, cutting back on alcohol, reducing intake of red meat, and upping fish and plant-based proteins can all help.
Nethertheless, colon cancer can be a terrifying diagnosis to receive. However, there are many treatment options, plus the sooner colon cancer is spotted the better prognosis.