Colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer in America. Claiming more than 50,000 lives every year, it’s also the second most deadly type of cancer today. While a cancer diagnosis is never a good thing, the good news is that colon cancer is usually responsive to treatment, and most patients will have an excellent prognosis.
What is Colon Cancer?
The colon is a part of the large intestine. While there are half a dozen types of colon cancer, more than 95% of all diagnosed cases are an example of adenocarcinomas. This form of cancer typically develops as a polyp, which is a growth inside the colon that may become cancerous if left to its own devices.
Cancer is what happens when a healthy cell somehow suffers a DNA error, leading to unusual rates of cellular division. These unusual cells grow out of control, destroying nearby healthy tissue, and ultimately spreading throughout the body.
With colon cancer, it’s not known what causes these DNA errors. What we do know is that colon cancer affects men and women equally, and typically occurs after the age of 50. Other common risk factors include previous history with polyps, inflammatory intestinal conditions, family history, heavy alcohol use, smoking, obesity, diabetes, sedentary lifestyle, and a high-fat / low-fiber diet.
Symptoms of Colon Cancer
Signs and symptoms that you may have colon cancer include unintended weight loss, fatigue or weakness, abdominal pain or cramping, blood in the stool, rectal bleeding, a change in bowel habits lasting at least several days, and the feeling you need a bowel movement that isn’t relieved afterwards.
It’s important to keep in mind that many of these symptoms could also be caused by hemorrhoids, infection, or a number of different bowel diseases. Just because you have these symptoms doesn’t mean you have cancer – but it does mean you should talk to your doctor immediately. The symptoms of colon cancer typically only appear after the cancer has grown and spread.
Life Expectancy for Colon Cancer
Caught with early screenings, colon cancer is typically easier to treat. In fact, the 5-year survival rate for stage I colon cancer is about 90%. Life expectancy drops steadily the longer the cancer remains undetected and is allowed to grow. During stage II-A, the 5-year survival rate drops to 87%, then 63% for stage II-B, and finally 11% for stage IV.
The treatment for colon cancer largely depends on how far along the cancer has developed. For cancers that haven’t spread, polyps can often be dealt with non-surgically by endoscopic removal. Depending on the cancer, surgery may be necessary to remove a small part of the colon. If it has spread, additional surgery in the affected areas will most likely be necessary. Depending on the risk of the cancer recurring, chemotherapy may also be used after surgery.
Survival rates and life expectancy calculations can’t predict what will happen; they can only give you a general sense of the kind of outcomes most people achieve. While a cancer diagnosis is enough to terrify anyone, most cases of colon cancer are very treatable. And with regular screenings, it’s often possible to head-off colon cancer long before it becomes a serious threat.