Colon, or colorectal cancer, is the second most common cancer in the United States, striking 140,000 people annually and causing 60,000 deaths. That’s a staggering figure when you consider the disease is highly treatable if caught in the early stages. Simple screening tools, like colonoscopies, can greatly reduce the risk for colon cancer and save lives.
Who is at risk for colon cancer?
Though colorectal cancer may occur at any age, more than 90% of the patients are over age 40, at which point the risk doubles every 10 years. In addition to age, other high risk factors include a family history of colon cancer, polyps and a personal history of ulcerative colitis, colon polyps or cancer of other organs, especially of the breast or uterus.
These pre-malignant growths occur on the bowel wall and may eventually increase in size and become cancer. It is critical to remove these benign polyps before they have a chance to turn cancerous.
What are the symptoms of colon cancer?
Many polyps and early cancers fail to produce symptoms and go unnoticed until they have progressed.
When symptoms are present, the most common are rectal bleeding and changes in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea. These symptoms are also common in other diseases so it is important to receive a thorough examination should you experience any of them.
Abdominal pain and weight loss are usually late symptoms indicating possible extensive disease.
How is colorectal cancer treated?
Colorectal cancer requires surgery in nearly all cases for complete cure. Radiation and chemotherapy are sometimes used in addition to surgery.
When caught and treated early, between 80-90% of people are restored to normal health. The cure rate drops to 50% or less when diagnosed in the later stages.
Thanks to modern technology, minimally invasive surgical options including laparoscopic and DaVinci robotic surgery may be available. and less than 5% of all colorectal cancer patients require a colostomy, the surgical construction of an artificial excretory opening from the colon.
Can colon cancer be prevented?
There are steps you can take to reduce your risk.
1) Have benign polyps removed during colonoscopy. Sometimes these polyps can turn into cancer later, so finding and removing them early is important. In addition to removing the polyps, the long flexible tubular instrument used in the procedure provides a more thorough bowel examination.
2) Though not proven, there is strong evidence that diet may play a significant role in preventing colorectal cancer. We recommend you follow a high fiber, low fat diet.
3) Stay aware of changes in your bowel habits and make sure bowel examinations are included in routine physicals once you fall under the high risk category or after age 40. Detection methods include a digital rectal exam and a chemical test of stool for blood. A sigmoidoscopy, the inspection of the lower bowel with a lighted tubular instrument, should be part of routine physical check-ups.
Can hemorrhoids lead to colon cancer?
No, but hemorrhoids may produce symptoms similar to colon polyps or cancer. Should you experience these symptoms, you should have them examined and evaluated by a physician, preferably by a colon and rectal surgeon.