What is Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer forms in the large intestine which is the last segment of the gastrointestinal system responsible for the digestion of food for energy and nutrition and the elimination of solid waste. The large intestine is connected to the small intestine at the cecum and ends at the anus. There are several parts to the anatomy: the right colon (ascending), the transverse colon, which crosses from right to left below the stomach, the left colon (descending), the sigmoid colon and the rectum. The entire length of the large intestine is between 5 to 6 feet long. Colon cancer can occur at any point along the large intestine.
Cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in any part of the body. There are different terms for cancer growth such as “tumor” (localized formation of cancer in the tissues), “recurrent” (a cancer that has returned after being diagnosed and treated), or “metastatic” (cancer that has spread beyond the original location). “Colorectal cancer” refers to all the cancers in the colon and rectum and includes tumors, recurrent and metastatic. Non-cancerous growths are referred to as “polyps” or “adenomas”.
What are the Symptoms?
Colorectal cancer may have no symptoms when it is first developing. As the tumor grows, it can cause the body to have difficulty digesting food and removing waste. Cells from the tumor can spread to nearby lymph nodes and then to other parts of the body. These cells can create new tumors in organs outside the gastrointestinal tract such as the liver or lungs.
A patient with an early-stage colon cancer may notice these symptoms:
- A change in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation) that lasts for a few days
- Feeling that a bowel movement is needed but no change in that feeling after having one
- Rectal bleeding – blood in the stool or very dark stools
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Weakness and fatigue
- Unintended weight loss
How does Colon Cancer get Diagnosed?
The best way to identify any possible colon cancer is to be screened. Finding and removing pre-cancerous growths before they develop into cancer is recommended for early prevention. Early cancers can also be removed and diagnosed for treatment. Patients are encouraged to have a screening colonoscopy if they are over 50 years of age.
Some people have a greater than average risk of developing colon cancer. They may have family members who have had colon cancer diagnosed and treated. They may have certain lifestyle risks that increase the likelihood of developing cancer. While over 90 percent of colon and rectal cancers are found in people over the age of 50, anyone at any age can get colon cancer. Risk factors and lifestyle choices influence the possibility of developing colon cancer. Smoking, obesity, diet choices, exercise, and even sunburns and tanning can increase a patient’s chances of being diagnosed with cancer.
Screening colonoscopies are performed in the outpatient endoscopy department at Rutland Regional Medical Center. Our general surgeons and gastroenterologists are Board-certified, meaning they have accomplished the highest degree of professional competence in their specialty. The test is performed under light anesthesia, making the patient as comfortable as possible. Patients can usually return to their normal lifestyle in 24 hours after resting at home.
There are lab tests that can be also performed on the patient’s stool to see if blood is present or to identify DNA markers associated with colorectal cancer. However, the screening colonoscopy has been shown to be the most effective and diagnostic tool for early discovery of colon cancer.
What are Treatment Options for Colon Cancer?
During a colonoscopy, the physician may take biopsies of areas that are suspicious for colon cancer or abnormal tissue growths which are not cancerous but could develop into cancer later. If the tissue is benign, meaning no cancer was found, then the patient will be followed over the course of their lifetime with routine screenings. Follow-up screens may be scheduled at 3 years, 5 years or even 10 years after the first test, if the patient has few or no risk concerns.
If colon cancer is found, treatment will begin immediately. Depending on how advanced the cancer is, different avenues of treatment may occur. A patient may have surgery to remove the tumor. There may be treatment by chemotherapy or radiation therapy. At the Foley Cancer Center, we have a team of medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pharmacists, and specialty-trained nurses that provide care for the patient with colon cancer at any stage.
Colon Cancer Outcomes at the Foley Cancer Center
Colon cancer is one of the five most commonly diagnosed cancers in Rutland County. The rates of diagnosis – how many people measured per 100,000 patients – are similar to the entire state of Vermont. These graphs compare Rutland County and the State of Vermont overall. The data is provided courtesy of the Vermont Department of Public Health in 2015, “Rutland County Cancer Fact Sheet”.
The Foley Cancer Center at Rutland Regional Medical Center supplies data on its patients to several medical organizations. Patients are not identified by their name or other identity and their anonymous medical data is compiled so we can better understand how the Foley Cancer Center is treating and supporting our patients.
One of the resources for our data is the Cancer Quality Improvement Program through the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer. The Foley Cancer Center maintains accreditation with the Commission on Cancer and is reviewed every three years.
Data from the Cancer Quality Improvement Program Annual Report of 2014 shows that the majority of patients diagnosed at Rutland Regional are treated here in the Foley Cancer Center. Our program has a 100% performance rate of treatment for adjuvant chemotherapy considered or administered within 120 days of diagnosis for stage III colon cancer – the State of Vermont has a rate of 95.7% and all programs in the CoC program have an overall rate of 86.4%. There are approximately 3,500 adult cancer survivors living in Rutland County and we want to see that survivorship number continue to grow.
Where can I get more information?
The physicians and staff at the Foley Cancer Center work with your community providers to identify and treat patients with colon cancer. Your primary care provider can set up referrals for screening colonoscopies with any of our general surgeons or gastroenterologists. Patients diagnosed with colon cancer can be referred to the Foley Cancer Center medical oncology team for expert and compassionate treatment. You can contact the Foley Cancer Center at 802.747.1831.
In addition to local resources, patients can also get information about cancer, symptoms, and treatment at these nationally-recognized websites: