Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. It can be treated, but your gastroenterologist must first know the location and extent of your cancer. In this blog, we will look at how doctors stage colon cancer and what kind of treatment options may be available if you receive this serious diagnosis.
Colon Cancer, Polyps and Screening Tests
Cancer that affects the colon or large intestine begins as small, benign growths called polyps, or adenomas. They resemble tiny stalks of broccoli or mushrooms, and they grow in the lining of the bowel.
Colon polyps are usually harmless, and most people ages 40 and up have a few in their large intestines. However, with increasing age comes the risk that a person will develop more and more polyps and that some may actually change into cancerous lesions. In fact, all colon cancers develop from existing polyps.
That is why cancer experts recommend routine colon cancer screening with at-home fecal blood tests or with in-office colonoscopies from age 45 and up. People with histories of polyps should be examined more frequently than those who do not. Additionally, patients with Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease are at higher risk for colon cancer and require more frequent screenings as determined by their healthcare providers.
Besides polyp detection, visual inspection with colonoscopy can reveal areas of bleeding, other symptoms of cancer or other problems in the large bowel. Sadly, colon cancer remains largely asymptomatic to the patient until the disease is far advanced.
Treatment Options for Colon Cancer
Treatment for colon cancer depends on many factors related to the patient’s health, age and more. However, the most important consideration is what oncologists, or cancer doctors, call cancer staging.
Colon cancer staging, numbered from the least invasive and most treatable to the most invasive and least likely to go into remission, is as follows:
- Stage 0-1—The cancer is contained in a localized lesion
- Stage 2—The cancer has invaded the colon wall
- Stage 3—The tumor has spread, or metastasized, to nearby tissues outside the colon
- Stage 4—The cancer has spread beyond nearby structures to distant organs such as the brain, lungs, or liver
Stage 4 colon cancer likely has no curative treatment options. Palliation, or symptom relief, is the best option to make the patient comfortable in the time he or she has remaining. The other stages may require surgery, radiation, chemotherapy individually or in combination depending on what the gastroenterologist/oncologist would determine as the best individualized path to remission.
Additionally, today’s sophisticated targeted therapies are composed of drugs which zero in on the individual’s genes and other cell proteins which can be modified or blocked to inhibit the growth of cancer.
Finally, immunotherapy shows tremendous promise in achieving remission for colon cancer. Immunotherapy medications boost the body’s natural defenses against cancer growth and its spread. These drugs are mostly classified as checkpoint inhibitors, which in essence, head off cancer before it attaches to what researchers call partner cells.
Prevention Is the Best Medicine
Studies show that colon cancer can run in families, particularly if the cancer seems to develop before the age of 60. However, there are lifestyle habits which can mitigate the risk of anyone developing colon cancer.
These preventive measures include:
- No smoking
- Routine exercise
- A high fiber diet with little to no red meat or highly processed foods
- Weight control
- Limiting alcohol intake
And, of course, people ages 45 to 75 should get screened for colon cancer at the intervals recommended by their primary care physicians or gastroenterologists.
Colon Cancer Screening in Westlake and Brooklyn, Ohio
At NorthShore Gastroenterology & Endoscopy Center, our team of board- certified GI specialists are vigilant about colon health and reducing the risk of developing colon cancer. To learn more about it or to arrange your colon cancer screening, please contact us today at (440) 808-1212, or request your appointment here. We serve the communities of Brooklyn and Westlake, Ohio, and would be happy to see you in one of our two offices very soon.