Colon cancer is among the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in the US, but treatments are available in many cases.
Early diagnosis is essential to getting the best treatment results, but colon cancer can often be difficult to detect. In many cases, early-stage colon cancer symptoms will only be mild or entirely non-existent. This leads to many cases where people are diagnosed at a more advanced stage.
Screening tests to detect colon cancer are recommended for the general population above 45 years of age or earlier if there are other risk factors.
According to The American Cancer Society¹, one out of 23 men is at risk of colon cancer, compared to 25 women. Although there is a difference between colon cancer frequency in men and women, both sexes can be affected.
Colon cancer initially develops in the inner lining of the large intestine. It is closely related to rectal cancer since the rectum is at the end of the colon. The two are collectively referred to as colorectal cancer.
Cases of colorectal cancer often begin as small collections of abnormal tissue in the lower digestive system that can remain without symptoms. Like other types of cancer, however, as it progresses, it can cause symptoms and spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver.
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In the early stages, polyps begin to develop in the lining of the colon. Many polyps can be benign but have the potential to transform into cancer.
Since polyps just start as tiny little bumps on the inside of the colon, a cancerous one isn't always noticeable right away. Symptoms may appear as cancer grows or spreads to other parts of the body.
Common symptoms² in colon cancer patients in the early stages include:
Changes in bowel habits
The feeling of not emptying the bowels completely
Fatigue and weakness
Unexplained or unintentional weight loss
Abdominal cramps or lower back pain
Blockage of the bowel from the cancer
However, these symptoms can often stem from diet problems or other parts of a person’s health. Unfortunately, many of the symptoms of colon cancer³ can easily be confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hemorrhoids, premenstrual syndrome, or attributed to poor dietary choices.
If you experience any of these symptoms more than usual, speak with your doctor about screening for colon cancer.
Despite the slight statistical difference between the rate of colorectal cancer diagnoses in men and women, there are no major symptomatic differences in how it affects different genders.
There are numerous techniques that doctors use to screen for colon cancer. Early diagnosis is always key to treating the patient more effectively, so medical professionals typically have routine intervals to test at-risk patients.
Although deaths from colon cancer have decreased over the past decade, the number of patients diagnosed with colon cancer continues to increase.
Screening for colon cancer is either done by testing stool samples or inserting a camera through the rectum and examining the digestive tract. This can be done through a variety of methods.
A colonoscopy is a procedure where a tube with a camera on the end is inserted through the anus and follows the entire colon as the doctor inspects the lining of the intestine.
Sigmoidoscopy is a similar procedure but is a much shorter, less in-depth test that examines the rectum and lower part of the large intestine called the sigmoid colon.
The United States Preventive Task Force recommends screening for all adults aged between 45 and 75. Someone with a family history of colon cancer or advanced polyps, or those with a genetic syndrome or other condition that predisposes them to develop colon cancer should speak to their doctor about commencing screening earlier.
Fecal immunochemical testing (FIT) or high-sensitivity guaiac-based fecal occult blood testing every year (tests done on the stools)
Or a colonoscopy every ten years
Or flexible sigmoidoscopy every ten years plus FIT every year
Or a CT colonography every five years
Although screening aims to pick up cancerous changes early, it is still possible for cancers to develop between tests.
If you have concerns about your risk of colon cancer or the symptoms you've been experiencing, your first conversation should be with your primary care physician.
A gastroenterologist is an expert in diseases associated with the digestive system. They can perform colonoscopies to diagnose colon cancers and other disorders and remove polyps during a colonoscopy.
A colorectal surgeon is an expert in any surgery that involves the colon or rectum. They can perform colonoscopies. Should a large cancerous lesion be detected, they can operate to remove parts of the bowel containing cancer.
An oncologist is a doctor who specializes in the treatment of cancer. Typically, a cancer patient will interact with this specialist more after the diagnosis and when it’s time to work out a treatment strategy.
With large tumors and those involving lymph nodes, chemotherapy can be required following surgery. Large rectal cancers may require chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy before surgery. Patients with advanced cancers not suitable for surgery require consultation with a medical oncologist for consideration of chemotherapy.
A wide range of factors determines a woman’s risk for colon cancer. While we can control some with lifestyle changes, others simply depend on each individual.
A poor diet can be a contributor to your risk for colon cancer. Your diet should be high in vegetables, fruit, legumes, and fiber and low in cholesterol, fat, processed foods, and red meat.
Colon cancer is more common in women over 50. Younger women may be at a higher risk of colon cancer if they have a family history of cancer or have another condition that predisposes them to colon cancer.
Certain genetic conditions such as Lynch syndrome can predispose you to develop colon cancer.
Those with other digestive disorders like Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis may be more at risk than others. Anyone with a history of developing polyps also has an increased likelihood of one of them becoming cancerous.
A sedentary lifestyle can lead to a higher risk of colon cancer in women, as can smoking and drinking.
Colon cancer is typically treated one of three ways, depending on when it's diagnosed, where it's located, and how aggressively it's spreading.
If the cancer is caught early enough, the cancerous polyps may be isolated and removed with surgery. Larger cancers may require a part of the bowel to be removed.
Chemotherapy can be used around the time of surgery to shrink the tumor or prevent recurrence after an operation.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy waves to target and destroy cancer cells. Like chemotherapy, it can be used in conjunction with other treatments.
A healthy lifestyle and regular screening may lower the risk of developing cancer and catching it early.
Go here to learn about steps you can take to reduce your risk of colon cancer.