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What is Colon Cancer?

Colon cancer is cancer of the large intestine that forms in the lining of the colon. Most cases of colon cancer begin as small clumps of cells called colon polyps. While these polyps start out as benign, if not discovered and removed, usually during a colonoscopy, they can become cancerous and develop into colon cancer.

In the United States, colon cancer is the second deadliest form of cancer. Each year about 150,000 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer, and 50,000 people will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Symptoms of Colon Cancer
Many cases of colon cancer have no symptoms or warning signs until the cancer has become advanced. However there are some symptoms that may indicate colon cancer, but these symptoms can sometimes be confused with other conditions.

  • Abdominal pain
  • Blood in stool
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Bloating, fullness or cramps
  • Vomiting

Risk Factors for Colon Cancer
Though scientists are unsure of exactly what causes colon and colorectal cancer, some risk factors have been identified.

  • Age
  • Polyps (growths inside the colon and rectum) that may become cancerous
  • A high-fat diet
  • Family history of colon cancer or polyps
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases involving the colon
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Obesity
  • Radiation therapy for cancer

Tests to Diagnose Colon Cancer

  • Colonoscopy
  • Flexible Sigmoidoscopy
  • Virtual Colonoscopy
  • Fecal Occult Blood test (FOBT)
  • Double Contract Barium Enema (DCBE)

Colon cancer is both preventable and highly treatable when detected early. There are a number of screening options to check for colon cancer, but a colonoscopy is considered the gold standard. Ask your doctor about which screening methods are right for you.

Treatments for Colon Cancer
The three primary treatment options available for colon cancer are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Treatment options for colon cancer depend on the stage and location of the cancer, whether the cancer has recurred and the patient’s general health. The surgical option, a partial colectomy, is the main treatment and includes removing the affected portion of the colon. How much of the colon is removed and whether it is done in conjunction with other treatments will depend on the location of the cancer, how deep it has penetrated the wall of the bowel and if it has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

In surgical treatment, the part of the colon that contains the cancer, as well as portions of healthy colon on either side, will be removed to ensure no cancer is left behind. Nearby lymph nodes will be removed and tested at the same time. Usually the doctor is able to reconnect the healthy portions of the colon, but if that is not possible the patient will have a temporary or permanent colostomy bag. A colostomy bag is a device that is worn on the skin discreetly under the clothing and is attached to the remaining bowel. Waste material travels into this bag which is then disposed of, and the bag is replaced as needed. Sometimes, a colostomy is done temporarily to give the bowel time to heal. It may become permanent if too much of the colon or the rectum has to be removed.

If the cancer is small, early stage and localized in a polyp, it is possible it may all be removed during a colonoscopy.

If the cancer is very advanced or the patient’s health is extremely poor, surgery may be done simply to provide comfort. This is an operation that will relieve a blockage of the colon to improve symptoms. This will not cure cancer but may relieve pain and bleeding.

Chemotherapy can be used after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells, and may be recommended by the doctor if the cancer has spread beyond the lining of the colon. Chemotherapy can be used in conjunction with radiation. Radiation therapy uses powerful energy sources to kill any cancer cells that may remain after surgery or to shrink large tumors before an operation. This option is rarely used in the early stages of colon cancer.