Colon cancer is an abnormal growth of cancerous cells in the lower part of the large intestine. Sometimes the cancer tumour might also start from the rectum which is the extreme lower end of large intestine and is then called rectal cancer. Both colon and rectal cancer have the same symptoms and effects and are referred collectively as colorectal cancer. It is generally caused due to bad lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits like smoking, no physical activity and obesity. The cancerous cells developing in colon cancer have the ability to spread to other parts of body too. If they are identified and cancer is diagnosed while these cells are contained in the large intestine, the cancer can be cured. But the more they spread to other body parts, the more difficult it becomes to cure the cancer.
Colon cancer does not have a genetic basis and is basically developed due to the fault of the person himself. A lifestyle which includes no physical activity, leading to obesity for a continued stretch of time is a major cause for colon cancer. Smoking is another big contributor. People with unhealthy eating habits, especially those who eat red meat on a daily basis and are heavy drinkers, will be at a high risk of colon cancer. Some colon cases reported have also been linked to genetic origins but the percentage of these cases is very low.
- The bowel habits undergo a change such that the consistency of the stool changes and may also be accompanied by diarrhoea or constipation.
- There may be blood secretions in the stool.
- Constant stomach cramps, gas, acidity or general discomfort in the stomach for several days at a stretch.
- Sudden and significant loss in weight.
- Unexplained weakness or tiredness.
The first noticeable sign of worry is if your rectum starts bleeding or if your stools contain flecks of blood. Other symptoms like stomach cramps, gas etc. are generally ignored by most people as normal gastrointestinal problems. But if these so called gastrointestinal problems are accompanied with blood in stools, then you must rush to the doctor. Colon cancer usually develops after the age of 50. Also, if you have a family history of colon cancer, and experience discomfort in the stomach for several days, then you should get yourself screened for colon cancer.
There are several tests which you will have to go through if colon cancer is suspected :
- High Sensitivity Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) – This test is used if other symptoms of colon cancer are observed but there is no blood in stools. Through this test, even the minutest fleck of blood in the stool can be detected which would not be visible to naked eye.
- Sigmoidoscopy – A lighted tube is inserted from the anus to travel backward into the small intestine which gives images that are viewed on a monitor screen. The tube can also be used to remove samples of suspicious tumour growth for biopsy.
- Colonoscopy –This is the standard test for colon cancer in which a lighted tube is inserted through the rectum which can remove any abnormal growth on the large intestine which can later turn cancerous.
- DCBE and CT Colonography – These are basic imaging test similar to an X-ray and a CT scan respectively.
The first step to the diagnosis is noting the symptoms as listed above. More importantly, if there is blood in the stool, it is a major cause of worry and the doctor may want to know more about your lifestyle. Unhealthy eating habits as well as obesity, heavy alcoholic drinking and smoking are some common causes of colon cancer. The doctor will also ask you questions about a family history of colon cancer.
Subsequently, the first test for diagnostic purpose would be an imaging test. The doctor may ask you to go through a DCBE which is an X-ray or if the images produced from an X-ray are not enough, then a CT scan. If the imaging tests show that there is some abnormal growth on the large intestine, it will have to be examined further through a colonoscopy. If the growth is simply abnormal, it will be removed during colonoscopy test itself and cancer will not be diagnosed. If, however, the growth has turned cancerous, the diagnosis will be positive. The stage of the cancer will also be diagnosed depending on how far the cancerous growth has spread.
Prognosis for colon cancer depends on the stage at which cancer is detected and treatment is started. If the cancer is at Stage I i.e. limited to insides of colon walls, then rate of survival is quite high up to 93%. However, if the cancer has spread outside the walls and affected lymph nodes, then chemotherapy treatment will have to be done.
The cancer cells inside the colon can also spread out further in stage III and IV and affect other organs like liver and kidney. If that happens, separate cancer treatment for those organs will have to be done which involves intense radiation and chemotherapy. The chances of survival reduce with each outside organ affected with cancer. Sometimes, the cancer may also recur even after treatment. However, in many cases, colon cancer patients have been known to survive it successfully and live normal life spans.
The best way to prevent this cancer is to follow a healthy lifestyle with the recommended amount of physical activity and limited smoking and drinking. People with inflammatory bowel disease are at a high risk of this cancer and therefore they should get themselves screened regularly. Even otherwise, a regular screening, maybe on a bi-annual basis goes a long way in preventing it as abnormal growths can be detected and removed on time before they turn into cancer.
The cancer types depend on the cells from which they arise. Some common types are:
- Adenocarcinoma – This is the most common type with almost 95% colon cancer cases belonging to this category. The cancerous growth starts from the inside lining of the large intestine.
- Gastrointestinal Carcinoid – The tumour starts from a nerve cell present in the lining of gastrointestinal tract and grows very slowly.
- Primary Colorectal Lymphomas – The cancer develops in the lymphatic cells and is very rare. It occurs very late in life to people who are 65-70 years of age or above.
For any type of cancer, the number of complications is unlimited and colon cancer is no exception. This cancer results in severe and sudden weight loss and feeling of constant fatigue. The treatment process is quite intense since it involves chemotherapy as well as radiation therapy and can take a toll on one’s well-being for the rest of his life. A good surgery is an absolute essential since colon cancer tends to recur.
Home Remedies :
While there are no home remedies for treating the cancer itself, some steps can be taken to fight off its side effects. To avoid dehydration during diarrhoea which is quite common, try drinking ginger tea or eating peppermint candy or salty crackers. Also, avoid taking stress and rest as much as possible. You can also ask your doctor to write you a prescription for painkillers.
The treatment for colon cancer varies according to stage of cancer and also takes place in stages with an advanced treatment being tried only if the basic treatment fails. Some common treatment procedures are as follows:
- Early Stage Surgery – This is done if the cancer cells are at their formative stage and are contained inside the colon. The growths are removed through colonoscopy.
- Colectomy – If the cancer has grown through the walls of the colon, then that part of the large intestine is removed through surgery.
- Surgery for Advanced Cancer – An attempt to remove cancer lesions from the colon or other organs it has spread to is made through surgery before moving on to radiation therapies.
- Chemotherapy / Radiation Therapy – These therapies use powerful drugs or radiation like x-rays to kill the cancerous growth. They are also used to reduce the size of tumour before removing it surgically.
Follow-up Care For Colon Cancer :
Colon cancer tends to be recurring in nature. In many cases it has been known to come back after 10-12 years of treatment. However, generally a second bout of cancer will not be as intense as the first one and should remain confined to large intestine only. However, to ensure that you do not have to go through the ordeal of cancer treatment again, regular check-ups and screenings are an absolute must so that the tumour can be removed before it affects other organs. People who suffered from colon cancer are also at an increased risk to prostate cancer and breast cancer and should therefore get screenings of these body parts done on a regular basis too.