It may be encouraging to know that colon cancer, if caught early, often is highly treatable. Colon cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in women, following lung, breast, and skin cancers. Often called colorectal cancer, the disease is categorized as any type of cancer that begins in the large intestine (colon) or rectum (end of the colon).
Symptoms are not prevalent, so screening is important, particularly if you are over 50 years of age or at high risk for developing colon or rectal cancer. A recent report even suggested that many doctors do not screen (fecal occult blood test, or FOBT) often enough for colorectal cancer. In cases where symptoms are present, they may include abdominal pain, and tenderness in the lower abdomen, blood in the stool, diarrhea, constipation or notable change in bowel habits, intestinal obstruction, unexplained anemia or weight loss. Nearly all colorectal cancer begins as benign polyps that could be removed during a colonoscopy, but if not removed, could slowly turn cancerous.
If you suspect you may have colorectal cancer, it is important to discuss it with your doctor to assure early detection and treatment. Some questions you may want to ask are:
- How is colorectal cancer diagnosed? The following screening tests may be used to detect colorectal cancer: FOBT, sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, double-contrast barium enema, digital rectal exam, or virtual colonoscopy. You may want to discuss with your doctor which tests they recommend, how much tests cost and/or if it is covered by your health insurance, if tests are painful, and how quickly results will be returned. After a positive result, you doctor will often perform a biopsy to gain more information about your condition.
- What type of colorectal cancer do I have? Where the cancer is located (large intestine or near rectum) will determine if you have colon or rectal cancer.
- How is colorectal cancer treated? Treatment often depends on the stage (0-IV and recurrence) of the cancer, but generally may include chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy.
- What is the long-term risk? Later stage colorectal cancer could include blockage of the colon, return of a previously treated colon cancer, or spreading to other organs.
- Who is at high-risk for developing colorectal cancer? People over 60, of African-American or eastern European descent, eat a diet high in red or processed meat, have cancer elsewhere in their body, have colorectal polyps, have inflammatory bowel disease, or have a personal or family history of cancer or colon cancer, and those who smoke and drink regularly also are at higher risk.
- Should I get a second opinion? Be your own best advocate! If you want a second opinion, ask for one. Many doctors welcome a second opinion contrary to what you might think. Many insurance companies may cover additional testing performed by a different doctor if your doctor requests it. Some insurance companies even require a second opinion. The short delay taken in getting all the information to allow you to feel more confident and in control of your health in most cases will not be detrimental to your treatment.
- What if the doctor suggests I have surgery? Depending on the stage of your cancer, your doctor may suggest removing part of your large intestine. Surgery can be done via colonoscopy, laparoscopy, or open surgery. It is important to discuss all treatment options with your doctor to find a treatment plan that works for you.
- Are there alternative treatments for colorectal cancer? Complimentary therapy (acupuncture, massage, herbal products, etc.) may help you feel better while being treated for cancer. You may want to discuss this with your doctor to ensure no medicinal conflicts arise.
- Is there any research I can do on my own and what sources would you recommend? A cancer diagnosis can be scary, frustrating, and confusing. Your doctor may suggest favorite web sites and support groups you can use to help deal with your condition.
This information is not meant to be a replacement for talking with your doctor. Talk with your team of doctors to get the full picture for your particular case.
www.health.google.com Colon Cancer
www.cancer.gov Cancer of the Colon and Rectum
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Christine Jeffries is a writer/editor for work and at heart, and lives in a home of testosterone with her husband and two sons. Christine is interested in women’s health and promoting strong women.