Colorectal Cancer Treatment (Colon & Rectal)

Each year there are more than 200,000 cases of colon cancer (also called colorectal cancer) in the United States. March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month where thousands of patients, survivors, caregivers and advocates throughout the wear blue to increase the awareness for colon cancer and the benefits of early detection.

The risk of colorectal cancer goes up as you age. Younger adults can get it, but it’s much more common after age 50. Colorectal cancer is rising among people who are younger than age 50 and the reason for this remains unclear.

What is colorectal cancer?

When food is chewed and then swallowed, it travels down the esophagus and into the stomach. The stomach partially breaks the food down which then enters the small intestines. The small intestine is the longest part of the digestive system (about 20 feet). Its function is to continue breaking down the food particles and absorb most of the nutrients.

The broken down particles that remain go into the colon (large intestine) which then absorbs water and more nutrients from the food particles and also serves as a storage place for waste matter (stool). The colon begins at the end of the small intestine on the right side of the body at a place called the cecum. Your waste matter moves from the colon into the rectum, which is the last 6 inches of the digestive system.

Colorectal cancer is cancer that starts in either the colon or the rectum. Most colorectal cancers start as a polyp (pah-lip) – a growth that starts in the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Most polyps are not cancerous. However, polyps called ‘adenomas’ have a greater probability of becoming cancerous. Adenocarcinomas represent over 95% of colon and rectal cancers in the United States. These cancers form in gland cells inside the colon and rectum.

The key to a higher cure rate for colon cancer is early detection. Resection of the polyp will prevent the polyp from developing into a cancer. The resection can be done endoscopically, at the time of colonoscopy, or if the polyp is too large it can be removed surgically.

Screening for Colon Cancer

The American Cancer Society recommends those who are at AVERAGE RISK of colorectal cancer being screening for it at age 45.  This can include a colonoscopy, observing if there is blood in the stool after a bowel movement, or Cologuard which assesses stool for cancer DNA or presence of blood.

Colorectal cancers can often bleed into the digestive tract, causing blood to be seen in darker than normal stool. Over time, blood loss can lead to low red blood count, called anemia. Sometimes the first sign of colorectal cancer is a blood test showing a low red blood cell count.  With that said, some of these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than colorectal cancer, such as common and less serious issues like hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome.

Symptoms of color cancer can include:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for several weeks
  • Constant feeling that you need to have a bowel movement
  • Rectal bleeding with bright red blood (this can also be indicative of hemorrhoids)
  • Blood in the stool, which might make the stool look black
  • Cramping or abdominal pain
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss

6 Early Warning Signs of Colon Cancer

  1. Blood in the Stool: Stool that is black or tarry can indicate blood in the digestive tract.  If you notice blood in the toilet bowl or on toilet paper after wiping, it also could be an early sign of colon cancer. But bright red blood can also be indicative of other conditions such as Crohn’s disease, hemorrhoids (common for those over 60), ulcers, or ulcerative colitis.
  2. Unexplained Bowel Changes: Everybody deals with a bout of diarrhea or constipation from time to time. And hemorrhoids are fairly common as we age.  But constant irregularities in bowel habits should be check out by your doctor.
  3. Excessive Fatigue:  Fatigue can be linked to many things.  Fatigue can be caused by cancer cells slowly eating away at healthy cells, plus the immune system battling the cancer.
  4. Unexplained Anemia  (low red blood cell count):  Anemia is another cause of fatigue. While anemia can affect women because of blood loss through menstruation, anemia is less common in men. 
  5. Rapid / Unexplainable Weight Loss
  6. Bowel Obstruction:   If a tumor grows large enough it can obstruct the bowel, making it difficult to have a bowel movement. Narrow pencil shaped stool can indicate the presence of a tumor in the colon.

What Does Colon Cancer Pain Feel Like?

According to diagnosed patients, colon cancer pain can include the following:

  • Dull pains in the pelvic area
  • Pain on the right side of the abdomen
  • Heaviness in the anus
  • Food poisoning-like sickness that turns into severe pain

Risk factors for Colorectal Cancer that you can control:

  1. Being overweight or obese: Being overweight raises the risk of colorectal cancer with the link being more prevalent in men. Staying at a healthy weight can help lower the risk.  
  2. Being sedentary:  Regular exercise can help lower your risk.
  3. Diets with red meat: A diet that’s high in red meats and processed meats (lunchmeats, hot dogs) can raise your colorectal cancer risk.
  4. Low Vitamin D: Vitamin D comes from exposure to sunshine which in the winter months is not in abundance in Alaska.  It is also found in fruits, vegetables and grains.  For those in Alaska, especially in the winter time, taking a vitamin D supplement of 5,000 IUs can be helpful — but consult your healthcare provider for the correct amount for you.
  5. Smoking:   Those who have smoked tobacco for years are at higher risk of colorectal cancer. Smoking is a well-known cause of lung cancer, but it’s linked to a lot of other cancers, too. If you smoke and want to know more about quitting, see our Guide to Quitting Smoking.
  6. Alcohol:  Colorectal cancer can be linked to heavy alcohol use.

Treatment Options for Colorectal Cancer:

Treatment options include surgery alone for early cancers, while more advanced malignancies may require the consideration of chemotherapy and/ or radiation therapy.

Who treats colorectal cancer?

There can be several specialties involved in the diagnosis and treatment of colon cancer.  This could include:

Types of colorectal cancer surgeries:

Colorectal surgery ranges from polyp removal to removal of a larger section of the colon with surrounding lymph nodes. The type of rectal or colon cancer surgery performed depends on a variety of factors including the exact location of the tumor and the stage of the cancer.

  • Polypectomy/Local excision: Usually done during a colonoscopy to remove very shallow tumors/polyp and surrounding tissue.
  • Colectomy (resection): A minimally invasive (laparoscopic or robotic) or open procedure that removes a part of the colon and / or rectum as well as nearby lymph nodes.

The Healthquest Guidebook

As a community service, we have produced a free guidebook on how to detect and prevent common cancers, and when you need to have screenings with your family physician.

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