Signs of colorectal cancer

Dr Jacques Badenhorst, gastroenterologist at the Christian Barnard Memorial Hospital, Cape Town, says that colorectal cancer is preventable and, with screening, can be detected early. It is commonly thought primarily to affect the elderly and men, but younger people and women are increasingly being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum) is the third most common kind of cancer. Although it’s slightly more prevalent in men, one in every 24 women will be diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer in her life.

Be aware of the signs of colorectal cancer:

  • Change in bowel habits (diarrhoea, constipation, or stool consistency)
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
  • Abdominal pain, cramping, bloating or discomfort
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained anaemia (iron deficiency)

“Many of these symptoms can be caused by something other than cancer (poor diet, a viral infection, haemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome), so get to know your body well so that you can report any noticeable changes to your doctor, particularly if symptoms last longer than a month,” says Dr Badenhorst.

According to Dr Badenhorst, a colonoscopy is the most effective method of diagnosing colon cancer. “It is a safe, comfortable, simple and widely available procedure that saves lives. A camera, or a colonscope, is inserted through the rectum to examine the entire colon and rectum and to take a biopsy if necessary.

“People with an average risk of colon cancer should start screenings at age 50. Earlier screening is recommended for anyone with a family history of colon cancer, polyposis syndromes or Lynch syndrome, and those who suffer from conditions that affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract (irritable bowel disease, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease).”

A colon cancer diagnosis can be terrifying. Patients’ first question is: “What’s next?”  The best course of treatment is affected by the stage of the cancer.

Cancer staging takes place after initial diagnosis and may involve many tests. Each test helps your physician to determine how much cancer has affected your body. After determining the stage, your physician will recommend a course of treatment.

Stage 0 colon cancer:  abnormal cells are found in the colon wall or mucosa. A polypectomy is performed to remove all malignant cells. If the cells have affected a larger area, an excision may be performed (a minor, minimally invasive surgery often performed during the colonoscopy).

Stage I colon cancer has invaded the mucosa and the submucosa. Malignant cells may have affected the colon wall’s deeper muscle layer, but not any areas outside the colon. Surgery (a partial colectomy) is required to remove the affected area.

Stage II colon cancer has spread past the colon wall, but not affected lymph nodes. Treatment involves surgery to remove the affected areas and usually chemotherapy. If not all cancer cells could be removed, radiation may be recommended.

Stage III colon cancer has spread past the colon lining and affected lymph nodes. The cancer has not yet affected other organs in the body. Surgery removes the affected areas, and chemotherapy is required. Radiation may be recommended for patients not healthy enough for surgery or those still with cancer cells in their bodies after surgery.

Stage IV colon cancer has spread to other organs in the body through the blood and lymph nodes.  Those with stage IV may undergo surgery to remove small areas, or metastases, in affected organs. Often, the areas are too large to be removed. Chemotherapy may help shrink tumours for more effective surgery or to prolong life.

(Source:  All4Women, 5 March 2019)

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