Except for skin cancer, colorectal cancer (of which colon is a type) is the third most common cancer diagnosed. It can affect both men and women. The probability of a person developing cancer in their lifetime is 4.3%.
As with many types of cancer, the probability of colon cancer increases the older one gets. Most colon cancers occur in adults over the age of 50
Researchers are not sure what causes cancer to begin growing in the lining of the large bowel. Some conditions can predispose a person, such as polyps and inflammatory diseases (for example, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s).
Certain genetic conditions (Familial Adenomatous Polyposis Syndrome, Peutz Jeghers Syndrome, Gardner’s Syndrome, Turcot Syndrome), can predispose one. Though these are rare, they are also very aggressive and occur in younger people.
A significant step in your cancer treatment is to understand what type of cancer you have. That, along with other factors we’ll mention below, are what determines the treatment your cancer doctor recommends.
Most colon cancers are adenocarcinomas. Cancer of the colon starts in the interlining of the wall of the bowel and spreads outward through the thickness of the bowel.
You likely know of someone who has been treated for cancer with radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery – or perhaps all three. You may feel apprehensive and worry about the cancer treatment you’ll receive, but it’s important to know that your cancer treatment may differ greatly from someone else who has cancer.
Your cancer doctor takes other factors into consideration before recommending a course of treatment. Besides the type of cancer you have and the presence (or lack of) certain biomarkers, other significant factors include:
- Your age
- Your general health
- Stage of cancer
In general, the younger you are when cancer is diagnosed, the more aggressive the cancer, which requires an aggressive cancer treatment. When you are diagnosed with cancer later in life, the cancer is slower-growing and there is often time to examine various treatment options.
Your current state of health (for example, physical fitness or the presence of other medical conditions) is important in determining how aggressively your cancer can be treated and what treatments can be used. You should also discuss any past health issues with your oncologist so that he or she can determine if it’s a factor in your cancer treatment.
In order to “stage” your colon cancer, the oncologist will determine the size of the tumor as well as if the cancer cells have spread to anywhere else in your body. Colon cancer can spread to lymph nodes, to the skin, or to distant sites like the liver, lungs, bones, or farther.
Staging your cancer is also a very important aspect of determining what treatment you’ll receive:
Stage 0 The cancer is confined to the Inner lining of the colon.
Stage I The cancer is confined to the colon, but has grown into the colon wall.
Stage II The cancer has grown through the colon wall and extends to the colon lining.
Stage III The cancer involves the colon lining, colon wall, and nearby lymph nodes.
Stage IV The cancer has spread to various organs (liver, lungs, bone, brain).
Colon Cancer and Treatment
Treatment for colon cancer may include any of the following:
- Chemotherapy — Anti-cancer drugs taken intravenously or by mouth. Typically used for Stage III and Stage IV cancer.
- Biologic (targeted) therapy — Typically used in Stage IV colon cancer, this refers to drugs that help prevent cancer cells from growing, thus helping to prevent it from spreading.
- Radiation — Aims a high-energy ray at the area to destroy cancer cells. Radiation can also be can also be carried to the cancerous area by an internally inserted device. Radiation therapy is used more often in the later stages of cancer and more for rectal cancer than colon cancer. It is also sometimes used after colon surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
- Surgery — Removes the parts of the colon where the cancer resides.
Your Treatment Team
A medical oncologist, with the assistance of nurses and staff, will treat your cancer in addition to any cancer-related conditions. The medical oncologist has the role of treating your cancer using chemotherapy or other medications, if appropriate.
The oncologist also works with other types of healthcare professionals to treat your cancer:
Performs the medical procedures to obtain biopsies or remove cancer from the colon, rectum, and/or neighboring lymph nodes.
Treats cancer using radiation therapy.
Genetic counselor will Studies the family history and provides a risk assessment for family members.
Your oncologist consults extensively with the other doctors to determine what type of treatment will result in the best outcome for you. Although you might receive treatment from any of the doctors on your cancer team, your oncologist is the “quarterback” who coordinates the treatment.
You can read more about your cancer doctor’s background and experience on the About page.