Cancer that develops in the rectum or the colon is collectively referred to as colorectal cancer and is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women in the U.S. Depending on the location where the cancer initially develops; however, it may be referred to as either colon cancer or rectal cancer.
Typically, colorectal cancers grow over the course of many years, beginning often as small clumps of noncancerous cells called polyps. There are multiple types of polyps – adenomatous polyps which are considered pre-cancerous and hyperplastic and inflammatory polyps which are typically non pre-cancerous. All polyps, however, are taken seriously by doctors and if polyps are discovered during your examination you will be monitored with greater attention, as even benign polyps may indicate the potential for the development of pre-cancerous polyps and even cancer at some point.
Polyps are typically small and asymptomatic which is why regular screenings are so important. Even the early stages of colon cancer most often produces little to no symptoms. However, as colon cancer develops, some symptoms may develop including:
- Blood in the stool.
- Changes in bowel habits.
- Consistent cramping.
- Pain in the abdomen.
Colon Cancer Screening
Routine screenings for polyps and the development of colon cancer are absolutely imperative to maintaining a healthy colon and rectum. In fact, diagnosis of cancer in the early stages – or before polyps have even become cancerous – dramatically increases the possibility of cure.
Yearly screenings are recommended starting at the age of 50 unless you have risk factors that may indicate earlier or more frequent screenings.
Make an appointment with your doctor where you can discuss your overall health, any symptoms you may be experiencing, and any potential risk factors for colon cancer including:
- Family or personal history of polyps or colon cancer.
- Inherited syndromes.
- Inflammatory intestinal conditions.
- A sedentary lifestyle.
- Having undergone radiation therapy for cancer.
- Growth hormone disorder.
- History of heavy use of alcohol.
Diagnostic procedures typically include:
- A stool blood test.
- A barium enema.
- A flexible sigmoidoscopy.
- A colonoscopy.
Colon Cancer Diagnosis
Through the above diagnostic procedures, colon cancer may be diagnosed. Your doctor will also determine your stage of cancer through imaging procedures so that treatment can be tailored accordingly. The stages of cancer are:
Stage 0: The earliest stage of cancer when the cancer remains in the inner layer of your colon or rectum (the mucosa).
Stage 1: When the cancer has grown past the mucosa but has not spread beyond the rectum or colon wall.
Stage 2: When the cancer has grown into or past the wall of the rectum or colon but has not spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage 3: During which the cancer has spread to neighboring lymph nodes but has not impacted any other area of the body.
Stage 4: When the cancer has spread to other sites and organs.
Recurrent: The re-development of cancer following treatment.
Colon Cancer Treatment Options
Once the stage of cancer is determined, your doctor will help you choose the best possible treatment for your diagnosis. The primary choices of colon cancer treatment include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, targeted drug therapy, and a combination of several of these therapies.
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