Guiding Patients Through a Colon Cancer Diagnosis
“You have cancer” are words no one ever wants to hear. Being diagnosed with colon cancer can be particularly scary. But although it’s the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, this condition is both treatable and preventable. At Rocky Mountain Gastroenterology, we’re dedicated to bringing our patients the gold standard in cancer education, diagnosis, and treatment. Whether you’re noticing symptoms or worried about your risk factors, our team can help. Our clinics can be found across the state of Colorado, all staffed with highly-trained GI specialists. Learn more about colon cancer and how you can reduce your risk.
What Is Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer is a condition that occurs when cells in the colon mutate and begin growing out of control. This irregular growth might start to impact the everyday functions of the surrounding organs and tissues. What typically begins as a small, noncancerous clump of cells (polyps) can transform into cancer over time. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, so it’s paramount to know the basics of this condition.
What Causes Colon Cancer?
The exact cause of most colon cancers is still unknown. However, the condition begins when healthy cells develop DNA mutations. These cells can no longer divide and reproduce normally and, instead, accumulate and build up into a tumor. As the cancer continues to grow, it can spread to healthy tissue nearby and “invade.”
Signs of Colon Cancer
Colon cancer symptoms are not evident in every patient. In fact, many people report no symptoms in the disease’s early stages. When the signs do start to show, they may vary from patient to patient. Your exact symptoms will depend on the location of the cancer and its current size. Generally speaking, colon cancer patients often deal with the following symptoms:
- Abdominal cramps or gas
- Weight loss
- Bloody stool
- Feeling unable to empty your bowels
- Overall changes in bowel habits
How We Diagnose Colon Cancer
When you visit Rocky Mountain Gastroenterology to discuss the above symptoms, we may run a variety of diagnostic tests. Some of these are quick and easy, and others require some preparation on your part. Expect the following when getting tested for colon cancer:
- Blood Tests: Blood tests cannot definitively say whether you have colon cancer, but the results may hold information about the organ’s function.
- Colonoscopy: This common method of diagnosing colon cancer involves inserting a long, flexible tube into the colon and rectum. A video camera attached to the end of the tube allows our team to take a closer look at the tissue and identify polyps.
- CT Scans: If we find evidence of colon cancer, we may order a CT scan of the abdominal, chest, or pelvic area. This test effectively determines the stage, or progression, of cancer.
Am I at Risk?
Many people are at risk for colon cancer without even knowing it. In fact, the condition has many risk factors more often associated with other diseases. Patients with any of the following risk factors should take special care to get screened often:
- Age: People of any age can develop colon cancer, but it’s most common in those over age 50. However, if you’re younger and have other risk factors, getting screened is still your best option.
- Past Cancer Diagnosis: If you’ve had colon cancer in the past, you’re more likely to get it again. Even if you’ve only had noncancerous polyps, you may still be at increased risk for cancer.
- Family History: Do you have a close family member with colon cancer? Patients with a family history of colon cancer are more likely to develop the same condition.
- Crohn’s Disease: Patients already diagnosed with Crohn’s disease or another inflammatory intestinal condition are also more susceptible to colon cancer.
- Diabetes: If you’re undergoing treatment for diabetes or have a history of insulin resistance, it’s important to stay vigilant for the symptoms of colon cancer.
- High-Fat Diet: People who eat a diet high in fat but low in fiber may have an increased risk. Those who also live a sedentary lifestyle raise their risk.
- Alcohol Use and Smoking: Those who heavily drink alcohol or smoke tend to have a higher chance of a colon cancer diagnosis.
- Genetics: Some people have gene mutations passed down over generations that can increase their risk of cancer. Thankfully, only a small number of cases can be linked to this cause.
When to Get a Colon Cancer Screening
If the symptoms of colon cancer are caught early, this condition is quite treatable. We encourage patients aged 45 and older to schedule regular screenings, or colonoscopies. If you have any of the aforementioned risk factors, we may recommend getting screened earlier and more often. In general, the team at Rocky Mountain Gastroenterology encourages screenings under these circumstances:
- You have a family history of colon cancer
- You notice changes in bowel habits
- You’re dealing with rectal bleeding or other GI issues
Providing Top-Notch Treatment
After a colon cancer diagnosis, it can be easy to despair. However, there are several treatments we can try to remove the cancer or slow the spread of the disease. Treatment varies depending on the stage you’re in and other health concerns discussed with your doctor. Here’s a quick overview of what to expect from treatment:
- Early Stages: If we catch the cancer in its early stages, a minimally-invasive surgery may be all it takes to remove mutated cells. Very small cancers can be removed with a polypectomy, but larger polyps may require laparoscopic surgery. We’ll make sure you understand each option before scheduling a surgery.
- Middle Stages: Once the cancer has grown into the colon, we may need to take more invasive measures to remove it. Our team might recommend a partial colectomy to eliminate the cancerous cells, or we may need to perform a lymph node removal. In some cases, patients benefit the most from an ostomy, a surgery that creates a new way for waste to exit the body.
- Advanced Stages: Cancer in its most severe stages require aggressive treatment. We may perform surgery to improve symptoms, but in the later stages, surgery is no longer a cure. Chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted drug therapy, and radiation therapy are all avenues for destroying cancer cells. We’ll discuss your needs and choose the treatment most likely to eliminate the cancer.
Prevention Is the Best Medicine
Even if risk factors are present, there’s still plenty you can do to reduce your chances of a colon cancer diagnosis. Of course, you should always be sure to schedule regular screenings. While colonoscopies can be uncomfortable in the moment, they’re nothing compared to getting the news of a cancer diagnosis. Lifestyle changes are another way to improve your health and mitigate the risk of cancer. Take these steps toward a healthier, cancer-free life:
- Add fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to your diet
- Try to stop smoking (talk to your doctor for help!)
- Exercise at least 30 minutes a day—if this is too much for you, don’t be afraid to start small and build up to a full 30 minutes over time
- Maintain a healthy weight with a combination of diet and exercise
- Limit alcohol intake
- Medication (for individuals at high risk)
Make Your Appointment Today
While there is no guaranteed cure for colon cancer, the team at Rocky Mountain Gastroenterology is dedicated to providing the best treatment possible. Colon cancer is among the most preventable cancers, and we’ll work with you to minimize your risk factors and reduce the chances of the disease ever developing. Our teams work tirelessly throughout Colorado to bring patients top-tier care for the most challenging conditions. Reach out to our staff, and learn more about colon cancer or schedule a screening.