Beating Colon Cancer: What to Expect If You’re Diagnosed

Beating Colon Cancer: What to Expect If You’re Diagnosed

Being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, which describes a type of cancer that starts in the colon or rectum, can be devastating—and startling—news. These types of cancers don’t usually cause obvious symptoms until they’re advanced, although some symptoms may include blood in the stool, change in bowel habits and abdominal pain or cramping. The good news is that if caught early enough, the five-year survival rate is as high as 90 percent. This is due in part because of advancements in colon cancer treatment, along with the fact that more cancers are caught at an early stage thanks to preventive screenings such as a colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy and other tests.

What is colon cancer staging?
Once you’re diagnosed with colon cancer, you’ll meet with an oncologist to determine how much the cancer has spread—called staging. The stages range from 0 to 4, with 0 being the least severe and 4 being the most:

Stage 0: Cancer cells are only found in the inner layer of the colon

Stage 1: Cancer cells have spread to the middle layers of the colon

Stage 2: Cancer cells have spread into or through the colon wall

Stage 3: Cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes

Stage 4: Cancer cells have spread through the lymph nodes to other organs, such as the lung or liver

Determining your stage
To make an accurate assessment, your doctor will take biopsies and perform one or more imaging tests, such as CT, MRI, x-rays or PET scan. Based on the results of these tests, your doctor may operate to remove the tumor and get a more accurate look at how far it has spread.

Understanding treatment options
While treatment choice depends on each individual’s case, the range of options is typically based on the stage and location of the cancer.

Stage 0: Surgery to remove the cancerous polyp (polypectomy) or surgery to remove cancer cells and nearby tissue (local excision through a colonoscope)

Stage 1: Surgery to remove a cancerous polyp or for cancers not in a polyp; surgery to remove a section of the colon and nearby lymph nodes (partial colectomy)

Stage 2: Surgery to remove the section of the colon with cancer and nearby lymph nodes; chemotherapy following surgery, if your doctor feels there’s a high risk of recurrence

Stage 3: Surgery to remove the section of the colon with cancer and nearby lymph nodes, followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation

Stage 4: Surgery to remove the section of the colon with cancer, nearby lymph nodes and other areas where the cancer has spread (metastases). If it’s determined that the cancer has spread too far, surgery won’t, in most cases, provide a cure. If surgery is possible, chemotherapy would likely be given before and after the operation.

What to expect after treatment
If you have surgery to treat colon cancer—even minor surgery—you’ll likely experience some pain (which can be managed with medication) and eating problems for a few days. Depending of your form of treatment, side effects may include rectal bleeding or blood clots in your legs. You’ll likely feel especially tired. In rare instances, the external incision may open up and become an open wound, or the anastomosis in the colon may leak, leading to an infection. Some people may also need a temporary or permanent colostomy, where the colon is brought through an incision in the abdomen and a pouch is attached to collect waste. Colostomy is typically needed if so much of the colon is removed that the remaining bowel can’t function properly. A colostomy may be temporary if bowel function returns after the colon has healed. Radiation for colon cancer can cause skin irritation, nausea, bowel incontinence and fatigue. Radiation may also cause impotence in men and irritation of the vagina for women. Chemotherapy for colon cancer can cause hair loss, mouth sores, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and increase your chances of infection. Your doctor will discuss with you the possible side effects before a treatment plan is put into place.

Life after colon cancer
There are now more than one million colorectal cancer survivors in the US—and you can be one of them. For some people, no further treatment is required once the cancer is removed, especially for those treated in the early stages. For others, the cancer may never go away completely; for those patients chemotherapy and radiation is required to control growth and keep the cancer from spreading.

Your doctor will want to keep a close eye on your health, requiring follow-up exams every three to six months. These exams may extend to two years after treatment, depending on the stage at which you were first diagnosed.

Regardless of where you fall in the spectrum after treatment, taking steps such as eating healthy, keeping stress levels under control and exercising can drastically improve your chances of staying healthy.

Medically reviewed in January 2018.

Facts About Colorectal Cancer, the Third Leading Cause of Cancer Deaths
Facts About Colorectal Cancer, the Third Leading Cause of Cancer Deaths
Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in American men and women separately, according to the American Cancer Society. ...
Read More
What are the signs and symptoms of colon cancer?
HCA Midwest HealthHCA Midwest Health
Blood in the stools or abdominal pain can be symptoms of colorectal cancer. Unfortunately, colorecta...
More Answers
4 Ways to Slash Your Risk of Colon Cancer
4 Ways to Slash Your Risk of Colon Cancer4 Ways to Slash Your Risk of Colon Cancer4 Ways to Slash Your Risk of Colon Cancer4 Ways to Slash Your Risk of Colon Cancer
Having regular screenings is essential for preventing colon cancer, but the choices you make every day can also lower your risk.
Start Slideshow
A Spicy Way to Prevent Cancer
A Spicy Way to Prevent Cancer