Have you or any of your loved ones been diagnosed with colon cancer? Or, does it run in your family? If you answered yes to either of these questions, the journey ahead could be slightly intimidating.
Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom because you can significantly improve the outcome by taking the right steps.
Colon cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, affects the colon or rectum. It occurs when healthy cells lining the rectum or colon begin to grow or change uncontrollably. As this happens, they form masses known as tumors.
During the onset, such tumors can be benign. This means that the tumor can grow but will not spread to other parts of the colon and may not have any harmful impact. However, if the tumors are not identified and treated early on, they can become cancerous.
Once a tumor becomes cancerous, it's also malignant. A malignant tumor can grow and spread to other parts of the body, complicating matters further.
Generally, from the moment a benign tumor appears to when it becomes malignant, it takes many years. However, there are situations where benign tumors can become cancerous in months or a few years. This is why regular colon cancer screening is essential.
With colorectal cancer symptoms, there are two things you should know. Firstly, symptoms are not immediate. So, you might have the condition and not know about it; another reason why regular screening is essential in preventing and treating the disease.
Secondly, most of the symptoms of colorectal cancer align with the symptoms of other conditions. These include hemorrhoids, infection, inflammatory bowel syndrome, or irritable bowel syndrome. As such, it's easy to dismiss it for another less concerning condition.
If you display any of these colon cancer symptoms, make a point to visit your doctor so that you can know the true cause.
Presence of blood in stool: While it does not necessarily mean you have colon cancer, the presence of blood in your stool is the most noticeable sign. Other conditions that may cause this include bleeding in the digestive tract, fissures, hemorrhoids, Crohn's disease, etc.
Change in bowel habits: These may come in the form of constipation, incomplete evacuation, narrowing of stools, and bowel incontinence.
Inexplicable anemia: Anemia is a condition characterized by a shortage of red blood cells. These are responsible for carrying oxygen throughout your body. As such, it results in shortness of breath and sensations of fatigue and sluggishness.
Unexplained weight loss
Pelvic or abdominal pain or bloating
Most of the signs of colorectal cancer are also symptoms of other, less serious ailments. However, it's essential to give such symptoms the attention they deserve. If they are persistent, talk with your doctor so that they can advise you on colon cancer screening.
As with most cancers, the causes of colon cancer are broad and often hard to pinpoint. While most are within your control, others are not.
Inherited gene mutations
Colon cancer develops when mutations in the DNA in the colon or rectal cells occur. Some types of colorectal conditions are associated with changes in particular genes. If you inherit genes with such mutations, you have an increased likelihood of developing colon cancer. The two most common genetic colorectal cancers are Lynch syndrome and Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).
Although you can be diagnosed with colon cancer at any age, the older you get, the more at risk you become.
Race and ethnicity
Another risk factor that's beyond your control is your race and ethnicity. In the US, non-Hispanic African Americans are at the highest risk¹ of being diagnosed and dying of colorectal cancer.
History of cancer or polyps
If you've been previously diagnosed with colorectal cancer or had polyps, you are at a higher risk of getting it again.
Certain health conditions
The risk of colon cancer developing becomes higher if you eat a lot of red meat, processed meats, and fat-rich diets.
Another diet-related factor is your weight. Becoming obese or overweight increases your likelihood of developing colorectal cancer.
Consumption of alcohol, whether moderate or excessive, puts you at greater risk of developing colorectal cancer.
When it comes to cancer risk factors, tobacco use ranks high. Data from the American Cancer Society² shows that smoking can directly cause colon cancer. And tobacco use is a common trait among 12% of colorectal cancer cases in the US.
Since inactivity is linked with colon cancer, ensuring that you do some physical exercise regularly can go a long way in reducing your risk.
While it may be necessary to take medications for other conditions, they may increase your risks. This is especially so with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) used for an extended period for people below 70 and of a healthy weight.
The good thing about colon cancer is that it is treatable. If you seek treatment on time and it's effective, it can:
Prevent it from spreading
Reduce uncomfortable symptoms.
Depending on the stage of colon cancer, there are several treatment options. However, your doctor will also consider your overall health status, age, and other individual characteristics that may be important.
The surgical treatment of colon cancer is known as a colectomy. It involves the removal of the part of the colon that has cancer and the surrounding area. Depending on how far it has spread, the surgeon may remove the entire colon.
Other surgical interventions include:
Endoscopy: This procedure is used to remove small and localized cancers. A surgeon will insert a thin and flexible tube that has an attachment for removing the cancerous tumor. The tube also has a light and camera the surgeon will use to locate cancerous tissues.
Laparoscopic surgery: Depending on the size and location of the tumor, surgeons can use this minimally invasive procedure to remove the tumor. It involves making multiple incisions in the abdomen.
Palliative surgery: For untreatable colon cancer, this surgery relieves symptoms such as pain and bleeding. During the procedure, the surgeon will remove blockages caused by tumors.
A surgeon may recommend chemotherapy for patients whose colon cancer is at an advanced stage, or their overall health is poor. During this treatment, you'll receive medications that destroy cancer cells. They achieve this by targeting rapidly dividing cells and interfering with the cell division process.
However, it comes with side effects such as:
This method involves exposing cancer cells to gamma rays or radioactive materials. The doctor may choose between internal or external radiation therapy. With the former, seed-like radioactive elements will be implanted in your body near the cancer site.
On the other hand, external radiotherapy involves focusing high-energy gamma rays on the cancer cells. Radiation therapy can be used as a standalone treatment or along with other colon cancer treatments.
Some of the side effects of radiotherapy include:
Changes in the skin that resemble suntan and skin burn
The primary role of the immune system is to fight off any agents that may cause harm to your body. However, it may fail to attack cancerous cells. This is because it may not recognize cancer cells as a threat due to the proteins they release.
As the name suggests, immunotherapy is a treatment method designed to help your immune system combat cancer. In most cases, it is only used for advanced cancer.
While there are colon cancer risk factors such as genetics and age beyond your control, you can take steps to reduce your risk.
Discuss with your doctor about screening
Colon cancer screening is generally recommended from age 50. However, depending on other risk factors, your doctor may advise you to begin earlier. This will reduce the risk as precancerous polyps in the colon and rectum can be identified and treated before becoming cancer.
Eat healthy diets
A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains is highly beneficial in cancer prevention. This is because they have a high mineral, vitamin, antioxidant, and fiber content.
If possible, try and get at least 30 mins of exercise several days a week.
Maintain a healthy body weight
With obesity being a colon risk factor, it's essential to maintain a healthy body weight. If you're overweight, begin an exercise program to reduce weight and manage your caloric intake.
Be aware of your drinking habits
If you need to consume alcohol, doctors recommend limiting it to two drinks for men and one for women.
For smokers, the only way to reduce risk exposure is to quit entirely. Since it may be challenging, consider talking to your doctor for medications or counseling.
An important tool in the fight against colon cancer is raising awareness. People need to know the risk factors and prevention methods. For this, the month of March has been designated as the National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.
Awareness campaigns are also accompanied by programs aimed at increasing colorectal cancer screening. For this, there are recommended interventions such as:
The use of reminder systems for both patients and providers
Addressing the structural barriers to screening by extending clinic hours, organizing a screening at local worksites, and offering assistance with transportation and paperwork
Thanks to such awareness efforts, the mortality rate of colorectal cancer has been reducing¹ over the years.
Of all the cancers in the US, colorectal cancer is the second most expensive one to treat. Moreover, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that it accounts for 11% of all cancer treatment costs¹. In total, this amounts to $14.1 billion spent on colorectal cancer care annually.
Depending on the cancer stage, Medicare health care spending for diagnosed colon cancer patients ranges from $40,000 to $80,000. For advanced colon cancer, the monthly chemotherapy costs per patient can exceed $10,0000².
See how much each type of colon cancer treatment can cost here.
Even though colon cancer awareness and screening are increasing, there is still much more to be done. This is because its prevalence and effect are still well beyond a desirable level. Some of the key colorectal cancer statistics you should know include:
Excluding skin cancer, it is the third most diagnosed cancer in men and women in the US.
Roughly 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer annually.
Of the diagnosed cases, about 104,000 are colon cancer, and 45,000 are rectal cancer.
There seems to be an even split between men and women for colon cancer cases.
Data suggests that men are at greater risk of rectal cancer, accounting for approximately 60% of cases.
Between 2013 and 2017, there was a 1% annual drop in colorectal cancer cases in older adults.
For people aged 30-39, colorectal cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer.
Between 2012 and 2016, there was a 2% increase in colorectal cancer cases among individuals below 50 years.
Colorectal cancer deaths are roughly 52,000 annually
Men account for slightly more than 50% of colorectal cancer deaths
Between 1970 and 2018, the colorectal cancer mortality rate reduced by 55%
The five-year survival rate of colorectal cancer is 65%
For localized colorectal cancer (38% of cases), the five-year survival rate is 90%
When colorectal cancer spreads to the lymph nodes or surrounding organs, the five-year survival rate is 72%
When colorectal cancer spreads to distant body parts, the five-year survival rate reduces to 14%
Colon cancer screening and prevention campaigns can help improve outcomes. Also, you can significantly reduce the risks if you are diagnosed early. So, make it a point to undergo screening regularly.
See more statistics for colon cancer here.
Depending on your medical needs and treatment regimen, you may need several colorectal doctors and specialists. These include:
Colorectal surgeon: Doctor who uses surgical approaches to treat colon and rectum ailments
Surgical oncologists: Also known as oncologic surgeons, they use surgical methods to treat cancer
Gastroenterologist: Doctors specialized in the treatment of disorders of the gastrointestinal (GI or digestive) tract
Radiation oncologist: Doctor that treats cancer using radiation therapy
Medical oncologist: Medical professionals that focus on cancer treatment using approaches such as chemotherapy and targeted therapy
Dietician: A food and nutrition expert that will help prepare the appropriate meal plan depending on cancer care and weight management needs
Genetic counselor: Specially trained health care expert that can help you determine your genetic risk of getting cancer and also performs genetic testing if need be
Pain specialist: This may be a doctor, nurse, or even pharmacist who is an expert in controlling pain