Colon Cancer Symptoms and Treatment - Acıbadem Healthcare Services
Colon Cancer Symptoms and Treatment

Colon Cancer Symptoms and Treatment

Colorectal cancer is the world’s third most frequent cancer type. Recognizing its risk factors, symptoms, and screening options is key to successful treatment.

What is Colon Cancer?

Colorectal cancer (CRC), also called bowel cancer, begins with abnormal growth of cells in the large intestine. It may start in the colon or the rectum, leading to colon cancer or rectal cancer. Doctors usually place colon and rectal cancers in the same category because they have many common features. In most cases, colon cancer originates from benign growths on the inner lining of the colon, called polyps. Over time, some polyps may mutate and transform into cancerous tissues.

What Causes Colon Cancer?

The exact cause of colorectal cancer is yet unknown, but certain risk factors are associated with the disease. Having a family history of colorectal cancer or ovarian, breast, and uterine cancer in women, as well as hereditary gene syndromes, previously detected polyps, or inflammatory bowel disease, may increase your risk of developing colon cancer. Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease are risk factors for developing colorectal cancer, especially in people who have had it for more than 10 years. However, behavioral risk factors, such as smoking, unhealthy diet, heavy alcohol intake, and physical inactivity account for a large share of cases. Eating a lot of red or processed meats and being overweight may also raise your risk. You are more likely to develop colon cancer after 60 though it might occur at any age. According to studies, one-third of patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer are younger than 55.

Colon Cancer in Males

Bowel cancer affects men and women almost equally. However, the lifetime risk of developing the disease is slightly higher in men (4,3% vs. 4%). According to some studies, males tend to be diagnosed younger compared to women.

Colon Cancer in Women

Female patients may sometimes ignore signs and symptoms of colon cancer since some of them are similar to discomfort related to menstruation or other gynecological conditions. A woman’s risk of developing cancer increases after menopause.

Early Signs of Colon Cancer

Very often, there are no specific early symptoms of colorectal cancer until the cancerous growth has advanced. For this reason, regular screening helps to detect the disease before symptoms develop, while colon cancer is most curable.

Colon Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of colon cancer become more noticeable with the progression of the disease. They may vary from person to person, depending on the location and size of the cancer growth:

  • Change in bowel habits, new onset of constipation or diarrhea
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, dark or narrow stools
  • Change in stool consistency or odor
  • Feeling as if the bowel is not completely empty
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, bloating, or pain
  • Weakness, fatigue, pallor, and anemia caused by iron deficiency
  • Loss of appetite, involuntary and unexplained weight loss

These symptoms do not necessarily indicate cancer. Many other disorders of the digestive tract can cause similar problems, including hemorrhoids, fissures, irritable bowel syndrome, etc. Visit a doctor for any complaints that last longer than a few days.

Colon Cancer Screening and Diagnosis

Generally, regular screenings for colon cancer should start at the age of 50 for people who do not have a family history of the disease and have no complaints. Screening may need to begin at 40 or even earlier if you have any risk factors. In people with genetically inherited polyposis syndromes in their family, screening should start at age 15-18. 

There are several screening options for early detection of colon cancer, including fecal occult blood test (FOBT), fecal DNA test, colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy, and computed tomographic colonography. The best screening method is a colonoscopy. It uses a thin, flexible tube with a camera at the end to examine the large intestine from the inside. The procedure allows doctors to detect and remove polyps before they turn into cancer, or to take samples (biopsy) from suspicious areas. Polyps removed during a colonoscopy are examined to determine if they have cancerous or precancerous cells. 

If the diagnosis of colon cancer is confirmed, further blood and imaging tests will be performed to evaluate the exact type, stage, and spread of the disease. ACIBADEM Cancer Centers provide rapid access to all the latest imaging tools, including chest X-ray, abdominal computed tomography (CT), ultrasonography (US), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), endorectal ultrasonography (ERUS), positron emission tomography (PET), for detailed diagnosis of colorectal cancer.

Colon Cancer Survival Rate

Colon cancer prognosis and treatment depend highly on the stage at which it is discovered. Stages are classified on a scale from 0 (carcinoma in situ) to IV. In the lower stages, the cancer is confined to the colon wall, while in stage IV colon cancer has spread to distant organs (metastasized). When the disease is detected at an early stage before it has spread, the 5-year survival rate exceeds 90%. Cancer is considered cured if it does not recur within 5 years. At an advanced stage, the survival rate is lower but steadily increasing.

The death rate for colorectal cancer has been decreasing over the last decades. This is related to improved early detection thanks to screening programs. When cancer is detected earlier, it is easier to be treated. On the other hand, the treatment methods have also progressed over time. A multidisciplinary approach and comprehensive treatment received in experienced cancer centers, such as ACIBADEM, can contribute to better outcomes.

Colon Cancer Treatment

How colon cancer is treated depends on its location, stage, and many other factors. What you should know is that colorectal cancer is a treatable disease, especially if it’s diagnosed early. Depending on the case, surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, or radiation may be used alone or combined. 

  • Colon cancer surgery. Surgical removal of the cancerous lesions is the best chance for treatment. The type of surgery depends on the location of cancer within the large intestine and its stage. In stage 0 and some early stage I cases, cancerous polyps can be removed during a colonoscopy with polypectomy or local excision. Therapeutic endoscopy allows treatment at the time of diagnosis, without any incisions, and this is often enough to eliminate the disease. Advanced cases require more extensive surgery called colon resection (colectomy). It involves the removal of the part of the bowel that contains cancer, along with surrounding tissues and adjacent lymph nodes. The remaining parts of the colon are reattached (anastomosis). Depending on the case, a partial or total colectomy may be needed. In some cases, patients may need a colostomy or ileostomy after resection surgery. It means that the surgeon creates an artificial opening in the abdominal wall called a stoma, in order to provide a way out for digestive waste. It could be used as a temporary or permanent solution. Palliative surgery can also be used to relieve the symptoms and prolong life at an advanced stage. At ACIBADEM, colon cancer operations can be done by minimally invasive techniques instead of open surgery in most cases. Laparoscopy and robotic surgery help to reduce the recovery time and improve patients’ comfort.
  • Chemotherapy for colon cancer. It is also called a systemic treatment, and it uses drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body. Even if the tumor is diagnosed at an early stage and removed completely by surgery, some cancer cells can travel to various parts of the body via lymph and blood vessels.  If these cells are not destroyed, they multiply and grow over time, causing the disease to recur in any part of the body. For this reason, preventive chemotherapy may be applied after surgery to destroy the remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy can also be used before surgery to shrink a large tumor and make the surgery easier (neoadjuvant therapy).
  • Targeted therapy for colorectal cancer. Unlike chemotherapy, which affects healthy cells along with the cancerous tissues, targeted drugs attack only malignant cells and do not cause significant side effects. They are widely used in the treatment of colon cancer, especially in stage IV disease. According to some studies, when used with conventional chemotherapy, these drugs may increase its performance by 25-30%.
  • Radiation therapy for colon cancer. Radiotherapy uses high doses of radiation to destroy or reduce the size of tumors. It is sometimes recommended for bowel cancer patients as a part of the treatment plan to eliminate residual cancer cells or metastases. ACIBADEM is equipped with the latest hi-tech devices for the delivery of radiotherapy, including MRIdian by ViewRay that allows ultra-accurate radiation treatment of hard-to-reach and moving tumors in the abdomen.