Colon cancer goes by multiple names, including bowel cancer and colorectal cancer. Though the majority of people affected by it are over the age of 60, you could still be at risk. So, here’s what you need to know about one of the most common cancers in the world.
What is colon cancer?
Colon cancer occurs when cells in your bowels – your intestines – mutate or multiply abnormally, forming a tumour. Most of the time, it is colon polyps that develop into cancers; polyps are harmless clumps of cells that can form in the intestine. However, because these cells can grow into something fatal, it’s important to remove them from the body before that happens.
There are multiple stages to colon cancer, and the type of treatment you receive depends on its severity.
- Stage 0: the cancer is limited to the inner linings of the intestine.
- Stage I: the cancer has grown deeper in the intestine lining, but remains within the colon.
- Stage II: the cancer has spread outside the colon, but has not yet affected the lymph nodes.
- Stage III: the cancer affects the colon, surrounding area, and lymph nodes, but has not yet spread to the rest of the body.
- Stage IV: the cancer has spread beyond the intestinal area and can affect other major organs.
Am I at risk?
As aforementioned, colon cancer typically affects elderly adults, but yes, you could definitely be at risk, especially if you are prone to several risk factors. Here are some examples:
- Old age. Again, colon cancer is prominent in those above the age of 50, so if you are elderly, it’s recommended you make regular appointments with your doctor to schedule screenings.
- Diabetes. Having a high insulin resistance or insulin intolerance can be a major risk factor when it comes to colon cancer.
- Smoking. Especially on a regular basis, this can increase your risk and affect your immune system.
- Regular alcohol intake. A heavy intake on a regular basis can also be a risk factor.
- Genetic history of colon cancer. Like many other cancers and conditions, if the disease runs in the family, you may have a higher chance of being affected.
- Being overweight/obese. People that are above their recommended weight not only have a higher risk of developing colon cancer, but a higher mortality rate from it.
- Low physical activity. Staying inactive is also a large risk factor, especially in older adults.
- Diet. A diet low in fibre and high in lipids can make the body more prone to developing bowel cancers.
- Race. In particular, colon cancer is more common amongst African-American people.
- Radiation therapy. Previously having received radiation therapy directed near the abdominal area for other conditions can increase chances of developing colon cancer.
What can I do to prevent this?
Taking into account the above risk factors, you can make changes to everyday habits to reduce your risk.
- Maintain healthy eating habits. Increase your fibre intake, reduce fat intake, and balance your fruits and vegetables.
- Reduce substance use. Smoking and alcohol intake can both be risk factors, so quitting them is an important step towards prevention.
- Stay active. Regular exercise every day is important, and can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which is another risk reduction method.
- Get tested regularly. Above the age of 50, especially, make sure you’re regularly being screened for cancers or polyps that could develop into colon cancer. If you’re at a higher risk, this screening can start even earlier.
Are there symptoms?
Symptoms of colon cancer are usually quite recognisable, and if you do notice two or more of the following, it’s a good idea to go through the required tests. Common symptoms include:
- Unnatural changed in your bowel movements, such as the frequency and consistency of your stools
- Blood in your stools, or bleeding from the rectum
- Frequent constipation and/or loose stools
- Abdominal pain, gas, and/or cramps
- Unnatural weight loss
- Excessive fatigue
These symptoms can overlap with other conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and haemorrhoids, but regardless, it’s important to visit a doctor, like your local GP, who will be able to help you receive the treatment you need.
How can I get a diagnosis?
If you notice more than two of the symptoms earlier mentions, contact a local practitioner or a specialist doctor. The first step of a diagnosis is screening – you’ll need to be scanned for the presence of polyps and/or cancer in the body. Screening could involve X-rays, the testing of faeces samples, or both. If any unusual activity is detected, such as blood in the faeces, it’s likely further tests will be carried out.
Blood tests are common during the diagnostic procedure, and though they can’t detect cancer, they can detect other abnormalities in the body. They can provide information about the spread of the cancer by testing kidney and liver function and also help during treatment by alerting the doctors as to how well your body responds to it.
A final test for colon cancer is a colonoscopy. A doctor may use tools to inspect the colon and rectal area for the presence of cancer, or to remove polyps. They can also remove samples to test in a lab for the presence of mutation.
If abnormalities or cancers are detected, you may have to undergo further screenings such as CT and pelvic scans. These can also help determine the stage of the cancer in the body and allow the correct form(s) of treatment to be administered.
Is there available treatment?
The treatment of colon cancer depends on its extent. The earlier stages may be able to allow the cancer to be removed through surgery, but later stages might require more extensive care and have a higher chance of recurring.
A polypectomy is a surgery carried out during a colonoscopy, in whcih the doctor may remove polyps from the body by the insertion of a tube. This generally applies to very early stage cancers that have not been embedded deep into the intestinal lining. If the cancer does develop further, some of the colon may have to be removed alongside the polyps during an endoscopic mucosal resection. However, in some early stages, the cancer cannot be removed during a colonoscopy, so a laparoscopic surgery is carried out. The abdomen is cut and polyps are removed, and the doctor will administer anaethesia for this procedure.
There are also surgery options for more advanced cancers. A partial colectomy means the doctor removes the part of the colon containing the tumour, when it is too large to be removed on its own. If there are further complications in the colon, such as other induced diseases, the entirety may be removed during a total colectomy. The lymph nodes in the surrounding area may also be removed if they are affected.
If the cancer has grown too large, surgery is often not a viable option. In this case, there are other procedures, like chemotherapy and radiotherapy, used to treat it. Since they do not remove the cancer entirely from the body, there is a greater likelihood of it recurring.
Chemotherapy involves medicinal drugs being either injected into the body, or taken through pills. It can also be used to shrink cancer before surgery, or can be used in combination with radiotherapy, which uses high-energy radiation targeted at the cancer-inflicted areas to treat them. Another option is immunotherapy, which uses drugs to strengthen the immune system in order to fight the cancer. In all probability, your doctor will assess the extent of the cancer and create a specific treatment plan that uses multiple of these methods to fit your needs best.
Living with colon cancer can be difficult, but you can make it easier by ensuring you get tested on time and treated accordingly. Make sure to look out for signs and symptoms, and keep in mind the risk factors.
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