Colon Cancer Treatment
Following a diagnosis of colon cancer, the process of treating the cancer begins. Colon cancer treatment will usually begin after testing to determine how involved the cancer is within the body. This process is called staging. The stages of colon cancer are numbered 0 through 4. Staging will help the physician determine the most effective treatment options for the patient. Other factors that are considered when developing a colon cancer treatment plan are the patient’s age, general health, and personal issues.
Treatment options for colon cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, clinical trials, and complementary methods. Surgery is almost always needed for the treatment of any stage of colon cancer. The type of surgery used to remove colon cancer is determined by the stage of the cancer. There are also surgical procedures to treat conditions caused by the cancer, such as spread of the cancer to other organs and blockage of the colon by the cancer.
Chemotherapy, if needed, can either precede or follow surgery and is usually added to improve treatment outcome for more advanced forms of colon cancer. There are many drugs and drug combination’s used for chemotherapy. These drugs kill cancer cells, stop the spread of cancer, and slow the growth of cancer. The drugs used in chemotherapy also affect healthy cells and can, therefore, cause side effects, such as hair loss, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, fatigue, mouth sores, and an increased chance of infection.
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy rays externally aimed at a specific area to kill cancer cells. It is usually included in the treatment for colon cancer when it is not certain if all the cancer was removed during surgery. Radiation therapy causes side effects, which may include: irritation of the skin at the radiation site, fatigue, nausea, bowel incontinence, and urinary problems.
Targeted therapy uses drugs that target changes that occur in cancer cells more specifically than standard chemotherapeutic drugs. This therapy is usually combined with standard chemotherapy to increase its effectiveness.
Immunotherapy is used with standard chemotherapy to boost the immune system’s ability to fight the cancer and to counter the negative effects that chemotherapy has on the body. Side effects of immunotherapy are similar to those experienced with the flu.
There are also clinical trials available for patients meeting certain study parameters. This can be a way of receiving the latest medications and procedures for treating colon cancer. Although the outcome of a clinical trial cannot be known in advance, trials are created only if the treatment being tested is believed to be better than an existing treatment.
Although colon cancer treatment plans will vary from patient to patient depending on how the cancer responds, there are standards that exist for treating each stage of colon cancer.
Stage 0 is defined as abnormal cells that are not yet cancerous found only in the innermost layer of the colon. These cells can usually be surgically removed with a colonoscope, which is an instrument that is inserted through the anus that can visualize and remove abnormal cells.
Stage 1 is cancer that has grown through several layers of the colon, but has not penetrated through the outside wall of the colon. These cancers are removed by a surgical procedure called a colon resection where an incision is made in the abdomen, the part of the colon containing the cancer is removed along with healthy colon on either side, surrounding lymph nodes are removed, and the ends of the colon are reattached.
Stage 2 cancer has grown through the outside wall of the colon and may have spread to nearby tissue, but usually does not appear in the lymph nodes. Colon resection is the standard treatment for stage 2 colon cancer. Chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy is needed only if the surgeon is not certain that all of the cancer was removed by the colon surgery.
Stage 3 cancer has grown through the outside wall of the colon and has spread to the lymph nodes. Treatment involves colon resection followed by chemotherapy. Radiation therapy may also be advised if the surgeon is not certain if all the cancer was removed surgically.
Stage 4 cancer has grown through the outside wall of the colon, has spread to the lymph nodes, and involves other organs of the body, such as the liver, lungs, or ovaries. Surgery often involves removing a larger section of the colon, more lymph nodes, and, if possible, cancer that has spread to other organs. It is usually not possible to remove all of stage 4 cancer surgically, but surgery has been shown to extend life expectancy, improve quality of life, and can offer a cure for some patients. Depending on the size and location of the colon cancer, chemotherapy may be given before surgery to shrink the cancer and better allow for its surgical removal, after surgery to kill cancer cells that could not be removed, or in some cases, before and after surgery. If the surgeon is not able to reconnect the ends of the colon following colon resection, a colostomy is performed. A colostomy is when the colon is redirected to a pouch that is worn on the outside of the body. A colostomy can be temporary or permanent colon cancer treatment.
Colon cancer may return after treatment and is then referred to as recurrent colon cancer. Colon cancer can recur anywhere in the body. Treatment options for recurrent colon cancer are similar to those for stage 4 colon cancer. However, limitations do exist in regards to the health of the patient and the amount of time that has passed since the last chemotherapy treatment.
Treatment options for colon cancer do not end with standard medical procedures and medications. Complementary treatment methods are also available. These options usually include herbal medicines to ease side effects of chemotherapy or procedures, such as massage or acupuncture to ease pain. These methods should be carefully researched and presented to a physician for incorporation into a treatment plan.