What Should I Know About Colon Cancer?

Prevention, new treatments, and even potential cures are available.

Colon cancer, often called colorectal cancer, is the third most common cancer detected in both men and women in the U.S., and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Yet colon cancer, unlike other cancers, can actually be prevented through regular screening. “Awareness is the key,” says James Orsini, MD, Director of Medical Oncology at Clara Maass Medical Center. He explains:

Who needs to be screened for colon cancer?

The recommendation from the American Society of Clinical Oncology is that everyone should begin colorectal cancer screening at age 50. However, people at higher risk should be screened earlier. Higher-risk groups include people with a family history of colon cancer, especially in your immediate family, and people with a history of IBD (irritable bowel disease). Talk with your doctor to determine if you are in a high-risk group.

How can colon cancer be prevented?

Lifestyle factors may contribute to an increased risk, but they can be modified. These factors include lack of regular physical activity, a diet low in fruits and vegetables and high in processed meats and fat; alcohol consumption, and tobacco use. For prevention, a colonoscopy—a type of screening that allows the doctor to use a lighted tube to view the rectum and colon while the patient is sedated—can detect lumps of cells called polyps that may turn into cancer. These polyps can be removed during the colonoscopy.

Why do some people put off getting a colonoscopy?

The night before a colonoscopy, you have to drink a certain amount of fluids with medications that cause diarrhea in order to cleanse your colon thoroughly. Many people are fearful of this. In an older person, the process may be harder because they may get dehydrated. Certain medical problems may also make colonoscopy preparation more difficult.

For those cases, there are other screening options to try first, including tests of stools (fecal matter) to look for signs of colon cancer, and what’s known as a “virtual colonoscopy,” which is like having an X-ray. If any of these tests are suggestive of colon cancer, then a colonoscopy will be necessary. A colonoscopy is the gold standard for screening for colon cancer.

What happens if colon cancer is found?

Today, treatments for colon cancer offer a chance for significantly prolonging a patient’s life, or even a cure. In fact, 50 percent of individuals who undergo surgery by a specialist—an oncological cancer surgeon—are cured. Surgery is often followed by systemic chemotherapy. In a small percentage of patients with colon cancer, innovative therapies, such as immune therapy, have been considered when patients relapse. We can actually target these therapies by testing for specific markers that enable us to establish which treatment is best suited for that individual. We’re seeing some remarkable responses to advanced colon cancer with combined immune therapies. So we’re extremely optimistic about the future treatment of colon cancer.

What message do you want people to get about colon cancer?

It all starts with awareness. Anyone can develop colon cancer. Unexplained weight loss or stomach pain that doesn’t go away could be signs. If you have rectal bleeding, don’t ignore it or assume it’s a hemorrhoid. Reach out to your primary care physician and find out.

To learn more about colon cancer screening at Clara Maass Medical Center, click here or call at 844-CANCERNJ or (844) 226-2376.