It's Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month at Digestive Health Partners. While we understand health awareness months may not be quite as enticing as national pancake day or dog appreciation month, diminishing the stigma surrounding colon cancer is a vital part of serving our community and improving wellness for all of our patients. Colorectal cancer affects roughly 106,180 per year (54,040 men and 52,140 women). Worldwide, colorectal cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer. Yet this relatively common form of cancer is rarely spoken about.

We understand there's a lot of fear and anxiety when discussing cancer of any sort, but especially surrounding colonoscopy, colorectal cancer diagnosis, symptoms, and treatments. Knowledge empowers our prevention strategy and allows us to live fuller, longer lives. One of the most often overlooked aspects of colon cancer is how preventable it is. We'd like to spotlight the power of prevention for this month's GI wellness focus.

Let's end the stigma around colon cancer and start taking control of our GI health.

Symptoms of Colon Cancer

Understanding the symptoms of colorectal cancer allows for early detection and treatment. Often, symptoms may be a sign of precancerous colon polyps which can be quickly and effectively treated. The key is learning to identify your body's signals. Don't ignore common GI symptoms. The telltale signs of colon cancer can masquerade as everyday digestive troubles. When in doubt, get it checked out and look for these key symptoms of colorectal cancer:

  • Bloody stool, specifically dark colored or black blood that persists, or unexplained change in stool appearance. 
  • Change in bowel habits or blood in the toilet after having a bowel movement.
  • Unexplained fatigue and weakness.
  • Anemia.
  • Rapid unexplained weight loss.
  • Lower back and/or stomach cramps that persist.
  • Bloating and abdominal discomfort.
  • Feeling the urge to have a bowel movement when there is no need.

It's important to note that some colorectal cancer cases present with no symptoms at all. While this may sound unnerving, the takeaway for proactive patients is to prioritize routine screenings. The best treatment for colorectal cancer is prevention. With a supportive, knowledgeable team of GI experts guiding your wellness journey, you can feel confident in addressing any changes in your normal digestive habits, no matter how small they may seem.

Overcoming a Colorectal Cancer Diagnosis

A colon cancer diagnosis is a life-altering event. For many patients, our next question is what treatments are availableshould a colonoscopy reveal concerning results. First, it's important to take a moment to process any news regarding your health and wellness. Your GI team will provide all the information needed to make an informed decision on the next steps in your care plan. This typically depends on what your colonoscopy has found such as precancerous polyps or what stage of malignancy the colorectal cancer is in if detected. The stage of colon cancer is often determined by imaging procedures such as abdominal, pelvic and chest CT scans, although in many cases, the stage of the cancer may not be fully transparent until after surgery.

Early stage colon cancer can be treated via:

  • Removing polyps during a colonoscopy (polypectomy). 
  • Endoscopic mucosal resection.
  • Minimally invasive surgery (laparoscopic surgery). 

 More advanced stages may consider:

  • Partial colectomy. 
  • Lymph node removal if metastasized. 
  • Chemotherapy.
  • Immunotherapy.
  • Radiation Therapy.
  • Targeted Drug Therapy.

A careful review of the benefits of each treatment is best determined based on your health history with support from your primary care team and GI specialists. Your healthcare professionals are here to guide you through the process and prioritize your needs and comfort from diagnosis to healing.

The Power of Prevention

Prevention is the best tool available for overcoming a colon cancer diagnosis. The earlier colorectal cancer is detected, the more effective and targeted treatment can be. In fact, when colorectal cancer is found at an early stage before it has spread, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 90%. Sadly, only 4 out of 10 cases are detected early.

Among the resources available for early detection and intervention is a comprehensive knowledge of your family history. Colorectal cancer has a strong hereditary likelihood. Knowing whether or not this specific type of cancer runs in your family can help your GI team focus on any potential symptoms, recommend more routine screenings, and inform your healthcare decisions. 

Set aside time to talk to your family in depth about your medical history. Learning more about your risk factors can empower your personal wellness journey. If you do not know or have access to your family history, you might consider undergoing a medical history DNA test to gain a better understanding of your genetic makeup as it impacts your everyday health.

The next steps to colon cancer prevention include going in for your regular screenings and blood tests. Screenings should begin at age 45 to best prioritize early detection. In fact, We know a colonoscopy isn't exactly anyone's favorite way to spend their afternoon. However, we're here to dispel colonoscopy anxiety. The process is relatively quick and painless. Patients are sedated the entire time while a small camera is used to view the entire colon and rectum. If any suspicious areas are noted, your doctor will remove a tiny tissue sample for biopsy and also remove any concerning polyps along the way. For more information on colonoscopy procedures, check out 5 Reasons Why Colonoscopy Isn't So Bad.

While blood tests cannot detect colon cancer, your doctor will typically encourage regular blood panels for clues as to your overall health. Liver and kidney functions can illuminate possible colon cancer concerns as well as paint a picture of your health profile. Carnicoembryonic antigen or CEA is a unique chemical often produced by colon cancers. In some cases, your doctor may use regular blood tests to track this chemical over time and better understand your prognosis.

Digestive Health Partners Can Help With Colorectal Cancer

Staying empowered and informed in your healthcare journey is the best way to celebrate Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. By prioritizing prevention, we're advocating for faster, more efficient treatments and smooth recoveries for our GI patients. Book your appointment today to learn more about how you can support your GI health and wellness.