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a graphic depicting colorectal cancer

Treatment Options for Colon Cancer, Depending on Stage and Severity

Colorectal Cancer Treatment

Colorectal cancer involves cancer of the large intestine or the rectum. The large intestine is divided into different sections, including the ascending, transverse, descending and sigmoid. The rectum connects the colon to the anus. Colorectal cancer can develop at any segment of the colon or the rectum.

As reported by the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. In 2020, it is estimated that about 53,000 will die due to colorectal cancer.

Signs and Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer

There may be few, if any, symptoms in the early stages of colon cancer. That is why colon cancer screening is essential.

According to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, when colon cancer symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Blood in the stool
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Rectal bleeding

Risk Factors

Anyone can develop colon cancer. However, there are certain factors that appear to increase a person’s risk. Some factors that increase a person’s chances of developing colorectal cancer include:

Age: colorectal cancer is more common in people over the age of 50.

Being overweight: being overweight increases a person’s risk of colon cancer, especially in men.

Sedentary lifestyle: people that are inactive tend to develop colon cancer at a higher rate than people who have an active lifestyle.

Smoking: smoking increases a person’s risk of developing colon cancer.

Family history: having a close blood relative, such as a parent, with colon cancer increases a person’s risk.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of colon cancer is made after a biopsy of a polyp or mass. Screening for colon cancer is vital for early detection, which improves prognosis.

Screening tests include a colonoscopy, which involves viewing the inside of the colon. During a colonoscopy, if a polyp is found, it is removed, and a biopsy is done to determine if it is cancerous.

If a colonoscopy is not done, there are also other screening methods, such as stool-based tests that check for the presence of blood in the stool. They cannot diagnose colon cancer, but they alert an individual, so further screening can be performed.

According to Mayo Clinic, most doctors recommend people that have an average risk of colon cancer get a colonoscopy by the age of 50. People with risk factors may need to get screened sooner.

Treatment

Colorectal cancer treatment often involves a combination of the following:

Surgery: surgery for colon cancer involves removing the cancerous polyp or tumor. Different types of procedures may be used depending on the stage of cancer and the size of the tumor.

Chemotherapy: chemotherapy involves different drugs that kill cancerous cells.

Targeted therapies: there are different types of targeted therapies available to treat colorectal cancer. The medications target specific cancer cells.

Radiation: radiation therapy involves targeting beams of high energy at the cancer.

Treatment by Stage

Treatment for colorectal cancer usually depends on the stage of the disease. Colon cancer is staged based on the size of the tumor and whether it has spread beyond the colon to the lymph nodes or distant organs.

It’s helpful to understand that individual treatment plans often vary. But treatment by stage may include the following:

Stage 0 and Stage I

This stage of colon cancer has not grown beyond the innermost lining of the colon. Usually, this stage of cancer is treated primarily with surgery to remove the tumor. Additional therapy, such as chemotherapy, is often not needed.

Stage II

Stage II cancer has grown through the wall of the colon and possibly into nearby tissues. Surgery is often the first step in treating stage II colorectal cancer. Surgery involves removing the mass and possibly a section of the intestine. Chemotherapy is also usually recommended. Different drug regimens may be used for various amounts of time.

Stage III

Stage III colon cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, but not to other parts of the body. Stage III colon cancer treatment also involves surgery. Since the size of the tumors are larger than in stage II, surgery is more extensive. It may involve removing the tumor and a section of the intestine. The remaining intestines are joined together.

But in some cases, if too much of the intestine is removed, a colostomy may need to be performed. A colostomy involves surgically creating an opening in the abdominal wall to allow stool to pass. Chemotherapy and targeted therapies may also be recommended. Targeted therapies work differently than traditional chemo drugs. The medications target specific changes in cells that cause cancer growth.

Stage IV

Stage IV colon cancer has spread beyond the colon and lymph nodes to other areas of the body, such as the bones or lungs. Stage IV cancer treatment often depends on where cancer has spread to. In some instances, surgery to remove tumors may be possible. But in other cases, surgery may not be an option. Chemotherapy may also be administered. Targeted therapies are also used to treat stage IV colon cancer. Radiation therapy may also be used to ease symptoms.

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