The digestive tract consists of several parts, with each of them having specific functions. The large intestine, known as the colon, is largely concerned with the absorption of essential fluids and the processing of waste materials to be eliminated from the body. The cells lining the colon may become cancerous .
What is colon cancer?
The condition begins with formation of polyps, which are small, noncancerous (benign) clumps of cells that form on the inside of the colon. The polyps may grow in size eventually and turn cancerous. It is usually difficult to diagnose the condition very early due to a lack of symptoms. This is why doctors recommend screening tests for the elderly to identify and remove the polyps before they become malignant (cancerous).
Colon cancer can be treated in several ways. The procedures include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, along with immunotherapy. Colon cancer is frequently referred to as colorectal cancer when the cancerous cells encompass both the colon and rectum.
Different types of colon cancer
The cancers affecting the colon and/or rectum are usually classified as adenocarcinomas. They are found in the mucosal lining of the colon. Some of the other varieties of cancers diagnosed in this part of the gastrointestinal tract may include:-
- Carcinoid tumor – Tumors are formed in the enteroendocrine cells that produce several gastric hormones to aid the digestive process.
- Lymphoma– The cells of the immune system turn cancerous and affect the lymph nodes. Such cancers begin in the lymph nodes in the colon or rectum.
- Sarcoma– This type of cancerous tumor is found in blood vessels, muscular layers, or other connective tissues lining the colon walls. This is a rare form of colon cancer.
Associated symptoms of colon cancer
- Alternative diarrhea or constipation with a change of bowel habits
- Bleeding from the rectum (this is evident when you find blood in your stools regularly)
- Feeling discomfort with abdominal pain or gas formation. It may be associated with bloating.
- Feeling dissatisfied with bowel movement
- Weakness and fatigue
- Losing weight steadily for no apparent reason
However, most patients do not have any symptoms during the early stages. The indications vary substantially and are dependent on the size of the tumor and its location.
The right time to visit a doctor for suspected colon cancer
Do not wait endlessly, hoping that the symptoms will go away on its own. Instead, visit a qualified and experienced doctor and get yourself diagnosed. The medical professional is sure to advise screening for colon cancer. While it is usually done for patients above the age of 50, a screening may be advised earlier based on your family history and existing medical conditions.
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What are the causes of colon cancer?
It is difficult to pinpoint the cause of colon cancer. The exact reason remains unknown. However, research studies reveal that DNA mutations are responsible for cancerous changes that affect the body’s normal functioning.
Risk factors for developing colon cancer
- Increased age– People over 50 are at an increased risk for developing this type of cancer
- Race– It has been noted that members of the Afro-American race are more susceptible to colon cancer
- Medical History– You have a risk of developing colon/colorectal cancer if you have polyps. Chronic inflammatory diseases of the colon like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, can raise your risk of colon cancer.
- Inherited syndromes that increase colon cancer risk. Common familial syndromes that increase the risk of colon cancer are Lynch syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), which is also called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC).
- Family history of colon cancer. You are more prone to develop colon cancer if you have family member who have had the disease. You are at a higher risk if more than one family member has colon cancer or rectal cancer.
- High-fat diet, low-fiber,. Both colon cancer and rectal cancer may be linked to a diet that is high in fat and calories and low in fiber. Research in this area resulted in a mixed outcome. Certain research studies found a higher risk of colon cancer in individuals who eat diets high in processed meat and red meat.
- A sedentary lifestyle. Those who are inactive are more prone to develop colon cancer. Getting regular exercise/physical activity can reduce your risk
- Diabetes – Individuals with diabetes are at an increased risk of developing colon cancer.
- Obesity– People who are overweight are more at risk.
Treatment options for colon cancer
The cancer specialists (Oncologists) will diagnose cancerous cells in the colon with a variety of tests and then proceed with the treatment based on its stage.
Your doctor may suggest a minimally invasive approach to surgery, such as endoscopic removal, laparascopic surgery or a polypectomy during a colonoscopy, if your colon cancer is very small.
If the cancer has grown into or through your colon, your doctor may recommend:
- Surgery to create a way for waste disposal from your body. When it becomes impossible to reconnect the healthy portions of your rectum or colon, you may require an ostomy which involves creating an opening in the abdomen from a portion of the remaining bowel for the elimination of stool into a bag that fits securely over the opening. This may be temporary or permanent
- Partial colectomy. In this procedure, the surgeon removes the part of the colon that has the cancer, along with a margin of normal tissue on either side of the cancer. The surgeon is often able to reconnect the healthy portions of the colon or rectum.
- Lymph node removal. Usually, nearby lymph nodes are also removed and tested for cancer during colon cancer surgery.
- In an extremely advanced cancer, surgery is not performed to cure cancer, but to relieve the signs and symptoms like a blockage, bleeding or pain. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy may also be used. Targeted drug treatments and Immunotherapy are also used .
How to prevent colon cancer?
Some preventive measures include:
- Screening Tests – It is advisable to opt for a screening as soon as you reach 50. Remember to do it earlier if you or anyone in your family had been diagnosed with colon or colorectal cancer. The screening test allows the doctor to find any polyps on the lining of the colon or rectum. It is necessary to have them removed surgically to avoid colon cancer in the future.
Colonoscopy is a method used to screen for colon cancer. In this method, a long, flexible and slim tube that is attached to a video camera and monitor is used to view your entire colon and rectum. If there are any suspicious areas found, your physician may pass surgical tools through this tube to take tissue samples (biopsies) for analysis and remove the polyps.
- Healthy Diet– Almost all doctors advise eating a healthy and balanced diet consisting of green vegetables, fresh fruits, and whole grains. Getting the right nutrition will reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. Do be careful to avoid consuming red meat at every meal or depending only on processed food to satisfy your hunger.
- Maintain Body Weight– Obesity is believed to be the cause of many ailments. You need to maintain optimum weight according to your height and bone structure. Check your BMR and consult a professional to find the best solution. Make sure to shed the extra kilos by following a balanced diet coupled with exercise.
- Physical Activity – Go for a walk or jog in the mornings to remain physically agile and active. You may try swimming a few laps or cycling to the nearest market once in a while too. Remember to pace indoors for 5-20 minutes at a stretch if you find it difficult to navigate the stairs. This can go a long way in making you physically fit and reducing the risks of developing colon cancer.
- Quit Smoking & Alcohol– Take pains to give up smoking for good now! Remember that smoking is associated with several health conditions, including colon cancer. Limit consumption of alcohol to prevent cancer in your colon as well. Seek professional help if required but try to give up all kinds of addictive habits.
Colon cancer is likely to begin as polyps or non-cancerous growths in the colon. Regular screening can help you to diagnose the condition early. This will help you to be cured completely.
- Why Do I Need a Colonoscopy?
Colonoscopy is a screening procedure that helps your doctor to discover cancerous growths early. The presence of polyps in the colon is believed to be a precursor to cancer and can be removed easily. This will help you to prevent colon cancer effectively.
- Is Colon Cancer Common?
It is the fourth most common form of cancer across the USA. The incidence of occurrence is the same for men and women. In India, the incidence of colorectal cancer is lower compared to that in the western countries. However, it is the seventh leading cancer in India. It is on the rise due to sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, obesity, excessive alcohol and smoking.
- What is a polyp?
Polyps look similar to mushrooms and are found in the lining of the colon during the screening process. It is usually removed as polyps are thought to be precancerous, with the cells becoming malignant if left untreated.
- Will my family doctor be able to treat colon cancer?
Not really! You need specialized treatment and intervention by qualified oncologists as well as other GI tract specialists. You need to be treated by a group of doctors, namely:-
A Gastroenterologist- digestive system specialist who will also perform colonoscopy for diagnosing the condition. The cancer specialists will treat the cancer through surgery , chemotherapy and radiation therapy .
- Is immunotherapy required to treat colon cancer?
Immunotherapy is a drug treatment that makes use of your immune system to fight cancer. The disease-fighting immune system in your body may not attack the cancer as ancer cells produce proteins that blind your immune system cells from recognizing cancer cells. Immunotherapy works by meddling with this process. Generally, immunotherapy is reserved for advanced colon cancer. Your doctor may have your cancer cells tested to see if they are likely to respond to this treatment.
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