Understanding colorectal cancer

by Tshepy Matloga-Malope
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Unfortunately colon cancer has a stigma attached to it and for this reason, many people may wait longer to get diagnosed. But the earlier it’s treated, the greater the chance of recovery. Tshepy Matloga-Malope gives us the facts.

What is colon cancer?

Colon cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is a type of cancer that begins in the large intestine (colon) or the rectum. Although it is often associated with men, it can affect women too. According to CANSA, colorectal or colon cancer is among the top three cancers for both men and women in South Africa, with 1 in 77 males and 1 in 132 females diagnosed, according to the National Cancer Register (2019).

It’s the second most common cancer in men (following prostate cancer) and the third most common cancer in women (following breast and cervical cancer).

An estimated 6,927 new cases of colorectal cancer were diagnosed in South Africa in 2018, which was about 6.5% of all cancers. More men (7.3% of all cancers) than women (5.7% of all cancers) were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in this same year.

Causes of colon cancer

The exact cause of colon cancer is not clearly understood, but several factors can increase the risk of developing this condition. “These risk factors can include a family history of colon cancer, inherited genetic mutations, a personal history of polyps or inflammatory bowel disease, a diet high in red and processed meats, a lack of fibre in the diet, obesity, smoking, heavy alcohol use, and a sedentary lifestyle.

Additionally, age, with the risk increasing after the age of 50, is a significant factor in the development of colon cancer,” says  Dr. Melvin Mbao, a renowned gastroenterologist at Gastroenterology Rustenburg. However, there is evidence of many younger individuals being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

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Symptoms to look out for:

Colon cancer symptoms can vary, but they often include:

  • a persistent change in bowel habits, such as diarrhoea or constipation, blood in the stool
  • abdominal discomfort or digestive pain
  • unexplained weight loss, weakness or fatigue
  • a feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty completely.

It’s essential to note that these symptoms can also be caused by conditions other than colon cancer. But, it’s crucial to consult a healthcare professional if you experience any of these symptoms, especially if they persist for more than a few days or worsen over time.

It is also important to note that since colorectal cancer in its early stages shows no symptoms, especially in younger people, it may be misdiagnosed. For this reason, it’s often diagnosed late at a more advanced stage or when it has spread to other parts of the body.

Read: Ovarian cancer- the silent killer

How is colon cancer treated?

Treatment for colon cancer typically involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, depending on the stage of the cancer. Diagnosis is based on a combination of clinical examination, imaging, and colonoscopy.

A tissue sample is collected from the large colon by means of the insertion of a flexible tube into the large colon, called a colonoscopy. This can establish a diagnosis. Surgery is often the primary treatment and involves the removal of the cancerous portion of the colon or rectum. In some cases, a colostomy may be necessary, where the remaining part of the colon is attached to an opening in the abdominal wall for the elimination of body waste. This can result in the patient having to use a “colostomy bag” temporarily or permanently.

Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells and can be administered orally or intravenously. Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells and is often used before surgery to shrink the tumour or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

“Treatment depends on the stage of the disease. Early disease is amenable to cure, so surgery is an option to remove the tumour. More advanced disease requires other treatment options, such as chemotherapy,” says Dr. Mbao.

Illustration showcasing the importance of gut health, with a focus on the gut-brain connection, featuring a vibrant and dynamic visualization of neurotransmitters and signaling pathways, conveying the impact of a healthy gut on overall well-being and mental health

Prevention is better than cure!

Early detection through regular screenings are essential in the prevention and management of this condition. Given the prevalence of colon cancer, it’s important to seek medical advice for any concerning symptoms or risk factors.

Dr. Mbao also insists on the importance of a healthy lifestyle, which includes physical exercise and a healthy balanced diet with fresh fruit, vegetables, lean protein, good fats, minimal alcohol and less processed meals.

Also read: The truth about testicular cancer

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