The American Cancer Society estimates that over 104,000 cases of colon cancer and 40,000 cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year. Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women and is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. In recent years, however, death rates have declined_ likely due to increased colonoscopy and polyp removal (preventing the progression of polyps into invasive cancer) and well as improved treatment methods.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the colon?
A: The colon and rectum, as parts of the digestive system, form a muscular tube called the large intestine or large bowel. Through a process called peristalsis, food moves through the stomach and small intestine, where it is digested, and the remainder passes into the colon. Once in the colon, all remaining water is absorbed into the body, forming solid waste (stool), which leaves the body through the anus.
Q: Am I at risk for colon cancer?
A: Colorectal cancer occurs most frequently in people over the age of 50. Colonic polyps, inflammatory bowel disease, and a family history of colorectal cancer are factors of increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Q: What are the symptoms?
A: Common symptoms of colon cancer include:
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Blood in or on the stool
- Frequent gas pains
- General stomach discomfort
- A change in bowel habits
- A feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
- Unexplained weight loss
Because these symptoms may be caused by many other problems, such as ulcers, an inflamed colon or hemorrhoids, it is important to consult your physician or a gastroenterologist (a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of digestive diseases).
Q: How is colon cancer detected?
A: There are many symptoms that your doctor will consider during your initial office visit. He/She may ask you about your personal and family medical history, perform a physical examination, and order laboratory tests. The American College of Gastroenterology indicates that people can take an active role in the early detection of colorectal cancer and recommends the following guidelines:
- Have regular checkups, to include a digital rectal examination
- Beginning at age 50, have an annual fecal occult blood test and your first sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy (examination of the rectum and colon) and depending on the findings, regular follow-ups thereafter.
Q: How is colon cancer diagnosed?
A: Your gastroenterologist may perform either an examination of the lower colon (using an instrument called a sigmoidoscope) or an examination of the entire colon (using an instrument called a colonoscope). By using these instruments, your doctor can check for the presence of polyps, tumors or other abnormalities. If an abnormality is discovered, your doctor may remove all or part of the affected tissue using the same instrument.
The removal of tissue to check for the existence of cancer is known as a biopsy. The colon biopsy procedure is the only method available to definitively diagnose colon cancer. The removed tissue specimen, a biopsy, is sent to a pathologist – a physician who specializes in the diagnosis of disease via microscopic examination of tissue samples. If cancer cells are identified, the pathologist can then assist your physician in determining the stage and extent of the cancer and the best treatment options.
Q: Do I have a choice of treatment?
A: There are several options for the treatment of colon cancer, depending on your age, the size and location of the tumor, the stage of the disease (i.e., whether it has spread to other organs) and your general health. You may also have concerns regarding the treatment process and potential side effects; therefore, it is essential that you and your doctor discuss all available options leading to the development of a treatment plan that is specifically tailored to your needs and circumstances.
Sources for Additional Information
For additional information about colon cancer, the following resources are available:
National Cancer Institute
Cancer Information Service (CIS) 1.800.4.CANCER
The Cancer Information Service and Cancernet are National Cancer Institute programs that provide a nationwide telephone service and website for cancer patients, their families and friends.
AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY (ACS)
The American Cancer Society is a voluntary organization with a national office in Atlanta, Georgia, and local facilities across the country. It supports research, patient education programs, and other services for family members. It also publishes and distributes free booklets on colon cancer and home care.
AmeriPath is the nation’s leading provider of cancer diagnostics, genomics and related information. Our AmeriPath team consists of more than 400 board-certified anatomic pathologists (many with subspecialty expertise) and our Institute of Gastrointestinal Pathology and Digestive Disease. Our specialists are able to pool their expertise through multiple modes of communication and respond quickly when consulting on unique or difficult cases.
Although AmeriPath’s board-certified pathologists do not treat patients directly, they render invaluable assistance to attending physicians (and indirectly to you) through the provision of definitive diagnoses based upon their interpretation of biopsy and cytology specimens. AmeriPath’s pathologists also serve as vital consulting links to attending physicians regarding effective treatment options.
This report is intended for patient education and information only. It does not constitute advice, nor should it be taken to suggest or replace professional medical care from your physician. Your treatment options may vary, depending upon medical history and current condition. Only your physician and you can determine your best option. Provided to you as a service by AmeriPath, Inc.