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Understanding Colon Cancer and its Symptoms

September 21, 2017

Let’s face it, cancer is frightening. Most people know someone who has or had cancer, and the results are understandably scary. According to the National Cancer Institute, 38.5 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetime. However, thanks to advancements in medical technology and screening techniques, our ability to treat and survive cancer is greater than ever!

Colon and rectum cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the United States, accounting for 8 percent of total new cancer cases in America. Thankfully, when detected early, the disease is highly curable.

Understanding Colon Cancer and its Symptoms

Demographics

Colorectal cancer is slightly more common in men than in women. Also, those of African descent are more likely than other ethnicities to develop colon and rectal cancer. Most colon and rectal cancer diagnoses are made in people between the ages of 65 and 74.

Colon and Rectal Cancer - Demographics

Symptoms

In the early stages, colon cancer does not have symptoms. As a result, screening is incredibly important, since it is unlikely for patients to notice their growing health risk until a major problem has developed.




When symptoms present themselves, the most common ones are:

  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Bleeding from the rectum
  • Cramping in the rectum
  • Bloody stool
  • Bloating or discomfort in your belly
  • Pelvic pain
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss
  • Anemia

Stages

It may be tempting to write the above symptoms off as hemorrhoids. Don’t! Early detection is incredibly important to treat any cancer. The survival rate of colorectal cancer changes dramatically based on the stage of the cancer.

Stage of the cancer

The following numbers are according to the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database.

  • Stage 0
    • This cancer is in its earliest stage and has not grown beyond the inner layer of the colon or rectum.
  • Stage I
    • The cancer grows into the submucosa, but is not in the nearby lymph nodes.
    • 5-year survivability: 92%
  • Stage IIA
    • The cancer spreads to the outermost layer of the colon or rectum, but is not in nearby organs or lymph nodes.
    • 5-year survivability: 87%
  • Stage IIB
    • The cancer has grown through the wall of the colon or rectum, but has not grown into nearby organs or lymph nodes.
    • 5-year survivability: 63%
  • Stage IIIA
    • The cancer grows into the submucosa. It has spread into a few nearby lymph nodes or into the fat near the lymph nodes.
    • 5-year survivability: 89%
  • Stage IIIB
    • The cancer spreads to the outermost layer of the colon or rectum, but is not in nearby organs. It has spread into a few nearby lymph nodes or into the fat near the lymph nodes.
    • 5-year survivability: 69%
  • Stage IIIC
    • The cancer has grown through the wall of the colon or rectum, but has not grown into nearby organs. It has spread into a few nearby lymph nodes.
    • 5-year survivability: 53%
  • Stage IV
    • The cancer may or may not have grown through the wall of the colon or rectum. It may or may not have spread to the nearby lymph nodes. It has spread to 1 or more distant organs (liver, lung, etc.) or distant set of lymph nodes.
    • 5-year survivability: 11%

Treatments

In all but the latest stage, surgery is very effective at treating colorectal cancer. Depending on how much tissue is effected, doctors may need to remove a portion of your colon to ensure all cancerous cells are removed. Once the disease spreads into other organs, surgically removing the tumor(s) from your colon will not cure you. However, in some situations, it can offer relief from some symptoms.

After the cancer has spread into lymph nodes, chemotherapy and radiation therapy is an option in some cases. These treatments may not cure a patient after the cancer has moved into organs, but can lessen symptoms and prolong a patient’s lifespan.

Screening

Colon cancer is deadly in far fewer cases today than it was in the past, due to advancements in technology and improvements in screening methods. The American Cancer Society, US Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer, and the American College of Radiology jointly agreed that screening for colorectal cancer and adenomatous polyps should begin in asymptomatic adults at the age of 50. For those at an average risk of colon cancer, the following procedures are recommended:

  • Every 5 years
    • Flexible sigmoidoscopy
    • Colonoscopy
    • Double-contrast barium enema
  • Every 10 years
    • Computer tomographic (CT) colonography

Some individuals will need colonoscopies at a younger age and/or with more frequency. If any of the following apply to you, you will most likely need a different schedule than the one listed above:

  • Personal history of colorectal cancer
  • Personal history of chronic inflammatory bowel disease
    • Ulcerative colitis
    • Crohn’s disease
  • Family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Family history of hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome
    • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
    • Hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (HNPCC)

Updated Screening Guidelines

The US Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer updated their guidelines last month. Now, its screening recommendations are divided into three tiers. The tiers are determined by their effectiveness.

  • Tier 1
    • Annual fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
    • Colonoscopy every 10 years
  • Tier 2
    • CT colonography every 5 years
    • FIT-fecal DNS every 3 years
    • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 to 10 years
  • Tier 3
    • Capsule colonoscopy every 5 years

These new guidelines suggest that African Americans begin tier 1 at age 45, and patients with a family history of colorectal cancer get colonoscopies starting at age 40. Additionally, it suggests that colonoscopies should be discontinued for patients over 75 with no prior negative screening tests or whose life expectancy is less than 10 years.

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends adults ages 76 to 85 should decide with their doctors on an individual basis whether or not to have a colonoscopy.

Colon Cancer Treatment in San Antonio, Texas

To receive colon cancer treatment in San Antonio, please reach out to the Digestive & Liver Disease Center of San Antonio. Dr. Robert M. Narvaez MD, MBA is committed to sharing his knowledge and healing the San Antonio community. He understands that “behind every case, every painful condition, and every surgery, is a person. A person with fears and a busy schedule and many other things doctors don’t find time to think about.” At the Digestive & Liver Disease Center of San Antonio, the focus will always be on you!

Schedule a time with Dr. Narvaez by calling (210) 941-1662 or requesting an appointment online.