Cancer of the colon (large intestine or large bowel) is also called colorectal cancer. It is a disease in which cells in the colon or rectum become abnormal, do not have normal control, and form a mass or tumor. Cancer cells can invade and destroy the tissue in or around the tumor, break away from the tumor, and spread to form new tumors in the colon or in other parts of the body.
Colorectal cancer is preventable with regular screening tests for colon polyps. It is more common in people over 50 years of age , and the risk increases with age. That’s why everyone who is 50 years of age or older should be screened for colorectal cancer at the intervals recommended by the American Cancer Society.
When polyps and small cancers of the colon are found and removed early, that prevents or cures the colorectal cancer.
Key Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer:
personal or family history of polyps of the colon, which may become cancerous
personal or family history of colorectal cancer
personal or family history of chronic inflammatory disease of the colon (called ulcerative colitis or colitis).
low fiber dietary intake
high fat dietary intake
eating too much red meat
being more than 50 years of age
personal history of hemorrhoids
Although a person may develop one or more of the key warning signals listed below, there may be no signals at all. That’s why screening is so important.
Key Warning Signals for Colorectal Cancer:
any change in bowel habits
rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
frequent passing of intestinal gas with pain or discomfort
general abdominal discomfort
NOTE: Cancer of the colon is preventable if polyps (small growths in the digestive tract) are removed before they become cancerous.
- Fecal occult blood test – Checks for hidden blood in the stool – – Have it every year
- Sigmoidoscopy – Visually examining the rectum and lower colon, with an instrument, for abnormalities – – Have it every 5 years
- Colonoscopy – Visually examining the rectum and entire colon with an instrument, for abnormalities – – Have it every 10 years
- Barium enema – A series of x-rays of the entire colon. Usually, a barium solution is introduced into the colon, along with air. This is called a double contrast barium enema – Have it every 5 to 10 years
- Digital rectal examination – Examination of the rectum for any abnormal area, using a gloved and lubricated finger – Have it every year
Screening should start earlier in persons who are at greater risk of colorectal cancer.
Treatment of Colorectal Cancer
Methods for colorectal cancer are:
Surgery, the main treatment for colon cancer. Usually the cancer is removed along with a length of normal colon on both sides of the cancer, and the nearby lymph nodes. Then, the two ends of normal colon are sewn back together. Sometimes, early cancer can be removed through a colonoscope. When this happens, the abdomen doesn’t have to be cut.
Laparoscopic surgery, which uses a lighted tube and special instruments that are inserted through a few small cuts to remove the cancer instead of one large cut. Laparoscopic surgery generally works as well as standard surgery, and recovery is faster.
With rectal cancer, radiation and chemotherapy may be used before surgery.
For some early colorectal cancers, removal of a cancerous polyp, or local remove of a cancer can sometimes be done with instruments placed in the anus, without having to cut through the skin.
Four common types of rectal cancer can be done without cutting through the abdomen. They are::
- Polypectomy, which means removal of a polyp, which is a mushroom-like growth across the stalk, when the polyp has very early cancer.
- Local removal of very shallow or superficial early cancers, plus a small amount of nearby tissue.
- Locally, cutting through all layers of the rectum to remove invasive cancer, plus some of the surrounding rectal tissue.
- Burning the cancer out with electrical current,
For more advanced types of rectal cancer, other types of surgery may be necessary.
Colostomy is more often used in the treatment of rectal cancer than colon cancer. It is a surgical procedure that brings the end of the colon (large intestine) through the abdominal wall. Then, the stool or solid waste material from the intestine drains into a bag attached to the abdomen. Colostomies may be temporary or permanent, depending on why they are done. However, in many cases colostomies can later be reversed.
Whether a colostomy is temporary or permanent, a health care professional is needed to train the affected person about colostomy care.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill the cancer cells. In some cases, external beams of radiation are used outside the body and focused on the cancer, and in other cases, small pellets of radiation material are placed directly in the cancer.
Sometimes, radiation therapy is used before surgery to shrink the cancer, and at other times radiation is used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells or small areas of cancer. People who have radiation treatment do not become radioactive. However, side effects, which often go away, may include mild skin irritation, nausea and diarrhea. Individuals who have side effects after radiation therapy should talk to their doctor about it because often solutions can be found to decrease them, or reverse them altogether.
This treatment involves the use of anti-cancer medicines to kill cancer cells. Sometimes the medicines are given through the veins in a slow drip, and at other times they are given as pills or tablets. They enter the blood stream and circulate throughout the body. There can also be side effects from chemotherapy, but most of them leave after the treatment. A well known side effect of chemotherapy is hair loss. However, when the treatments are over, which often may last for 4 to 6 months, the hair grows back. However, the appearance of the hair may be somewhat different.
Depending on how advanced the cancer is, treatment of colorectal cancer can involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of two or more of these.
REMEMBER: Colorectal cancer is preventable if polyps (small growths in the digestive tract) are removed before they become cancerous
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