According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the U.S., excluding skin cancers. Also called colorectal cancer, it is the second leading cause of cancer deaths. This cancer affects both men and women and all racial and ethnic groups. It is, however, more common in older people with 90% of all cases occurring in patients over age 50. The hopeful news is that with early detection, colon cancer is highly treatable. Even those with advanced stage colon cancer are living longer with the advent of new treatments.
Recognizing the Signs & Symptoms:
Colon cancer can be present for several years before symptoms develop. Symptoms vary according to the location of the tumor in the large intestine. The right colon is spacious, and cancers of the right colon can grow to large sizes before they cause any abdominal symptoms. Symptoms of colon cancer can include:
- Blood in the stool
- Chronic fatigue
- Unexplained stomach irritation or pain
- Frequent gas or indigestion
- Change in bowel movement habits
- Unexplained weight loss
- Stools that are narrower than normal to you
Caution: Having any of the above symptoms does NOT mean that you have colon cancer. However, it does indicate that a check-up with your personal physician is warranted to investigate. Other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (spastic colon), ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease,diverticulosis, and peptic ulcer disease can have symptoms that mimic colorectal cancer.
The majority of colorectal cancers begin as polyps (abnormal tumors) inside the colon or rectum. These tumors may become cancers over an extended period of time. The specific cause of colon cancers is not yet known. However, certain factors may place you at higher risk for developing colon cancer.
Understanding the Risks:
Genetic mutations such as Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) or Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC). This affects a small percentage of the population but can greatly increase the risk of developing colon cancer
Over 60 years of age
History of Crohn's Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, or another inflammatory bowl disease
Family history of colon cancer
History of colorectal polyps
History of breast cancer or another type of cancer
Consuming a diet that is high in red meat and fat and low in fiber
Frequent consumption of alchohol and smoking
African American or Eastern European ethnicity
Living a sedentary lifestyle and carrying extra weight
History of radiation therapy
Regardless of the presence of any risk factors, it is proven that deaths from colon cancer are significantly reduced with regular screenings, beginning at age 50. Screenings before 50 may be recommended based on the presence of certain risk factors.
Finding Hope in New Treatment Research:
Conventional treatment for colon cancer depends on the staging of the cancer. Typical therapy includes surgery to remove the cancer. The extent of the surgery will depend on whether the cancer is localized and easily removed or is extensive, requiring removal of a portion of the colon and nearby lymph nodes. Other treatments can include chemotherapy and/or radiation to destroy or shrink cancerous cells.
Researchers are working on a number of fronts to create new, better treatment options for patients battling colon cancer. Testing for colon cancer treatment vaccines is underway at several research centers. These vaccine potentially work by strengthening the body’s natural defenses against the cancer. A team at Johns Hopkins University has recently completed the first phase of clinical trials for one such vaccine. A second study at Hopkins is now planned to test a combination vaccine therapy in advanced stage colorectal cancer patients who have completed their chemotherapy treatments. If successful, this treatment would give patients a way to keep their disease stable after treatment and could prove to be helpful in earlier stages of the disease as well. Other colon cancer vaccine studies are taking place at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute announced initial success of their colon cancer vaccine in human trials earlier this year. Their study, published in the January 2013 edition of Cancer Prevention Research, showed that their vaccine is safe and produced the immune response they expected. These are all exciting developments in the race to find new and more effective treatment options.
Looking for a way to support colon cancer prevention and treatment research efforts? How about organizing a team to participate in your local "Undy 5000"? This fun, family friendly event sponsored by the Colon Cancer Alliance is a 5k Run/Walk held at numerous locations throughout the country. The proceeds fund treatment research, patient support programs and development of community colon cancer screening programs. Visit the Colon Cancer Alliance website for information on the "Undy 5000" www.ccalliance.org.
This article is dedicated in memory of Easy Living Services friend, Mr. Alan Booth who fought his battle against colon cancer with courage and grace. He will be missed by family and many friends who were inspired by his warmth, sense of humor and capacity for love.