Colon cancer, which occurs when normal cells within the colon grown uncontrollably and irregularly, is the second leading cause of death from all types of cancers in the United States alone. An estimated 150,000 new cases are expected to be diagnosed each year, and unfortunately, nearly a third of those people will die from the disease.
However, if colon cancer is caught in the earliest stages, it is actually highly treatable, not to mention preventable through early regular and screenings. Screenings for the disease should begin at age 50, unless there’s a family history of colon cancer, or a personal history of another type of cancer, in which case, one should be tested at an earlier age.
The Causes and Risk Factors of Colon Cancer
Although the exact cause for colon cancer has remained mostly a mystery to scientists and doctors, some risk factors have already been identified while research on the disease continues. The biggest risk factor when it comes to getting this particular type of cancer is age. While scientists do know that one’s age doesn’t necessarily cause the cancer itself to occur, they also know that the older you are, the more likely you are to develop the disease. Unless there’s a family history, being diagnosed with colon cancer before the age of 50 is relatively rare with the majority of cases first appearing in people who are in their sixties or seventies, or later.
Besides family history and age, cigarette smoking may also raise the risk of this type of cancer, and it has been proven through research that smoke does increase the size of colon polyps, which are rather common after the age of 50, but most of which will remain benign or non-cancerous. Having polyps removed is actually a simple procedure that can eliminate the risk of them becoming malignant or cancerous in the future.
The Symptoms of Colon Cancer
With colon cancer, unfortunately there are most usually no early warning signs that alert people of the presence of the disease until it is in the latter, and untreatable stages. Symptoms may also vary by where the cancer is actually located within the colon as well as the stage it is in, and may be non-specific, meaning they may also indicate a large number of other diseases and ailments, some serious, and some not.
The most common symptoms of colon cancer in patients is noticeable changes in their bowel habits as well as changes in the appearance of their stools. Blood in the stool, cramping or bloating, unexplained weight loss or fatigue, and intestinal problems such as nausea or excessive gas may also indicate colon cancer, or they could also be because of another completely benign condition.
A Diagnosis of Colon Cancer
One of the simplest procedures to start the testing process for colon cancer is the DRE, or digital rectal examination, which is usually performed right in the doctor’s office to determine the presence of polyps in the lowest part of the colon the rectum. A colonoscopy may also be done, which is a test that allows the doctor to see the inside walls of the colon and whether or not there are any polyps, which can then simply be removed during the procedure. This life-saving test should be done every ten years after age 50 in people with normal or minimal risk factors for the disease. An FOBT, or fecal occult blood test, also known as a stool test, may also be needed to detect the presence of blood in the stool that isn’t visible to the naked eye.
After a positive diagnosis of colon cancer, further testing must be conducted to ascertain whether or not the cancerous cells have spread beyond the colon. This type of testing is referred to as staging and is done to give physicians a better idea as to how far the cancer may have already progressed in order to tailor treatment accordingly.
Some of the tests and procedures used in this process include:
- CBC (Complete Blood Count)
- CEA (Carcinoembryonic Antigen Assay)
- CT Scan (Computed Tomography)
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
The Stages of Colon Cancer
After all of the necessary tests are completed, colon cancer is then defined by one of the following four stages:
- Stage 0
- Stage I
- Stage II
- Stage IIA
- Stage IIB
- Stage III
- Stage IIIA
- Stage IIIB
- Stage IIIC
- Stage IV
For further information on the four stages of colon cancer please read Colon Cancer Treatment.