Whether you or a loved one are worried about developing colon cancer or rectal cancer (commonly referred to together as colorectal cancer), are going through treatment or are trying to stay well after treatment, we’re here for you every step of the way.
What is colon cancer?
Colon cancer and rectal cancer, commonly grouped together as colorectal cancer, is the second most common type of cancer in the United States. But, when detected in its early stages, the 5-year survival rate is higher than 90 percent.
Colon cancer develops when the healthy, normal cells that line the colon or rectum begin to "go rogue" by growing and functioning in a different way. These cells can begin to form noncancerous growths called polyps. Not all polyps contain cancer. However, without treatment, polyps have the potential to turn into cancer.
Colon cancer symptoms
Your digestive system, also called the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, contains:
- The colon, which is the first six feet of your large intestine
- The rectum, which is the last six feet of your large intestine
Colon cancer often has no symptoms in its early stages, which is why prevention and detection methods are so important. Colon cancer signs that can appear in the more advanced stages of the disease include:
- A change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation
- A change in the consistency of your stool that lasts for more than a few days
- Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
- Persistent cramping, gas or abdominal pain
- Feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty completely
- Unexplained weight loss
- Weakness or fatigue
Having these symptoms does not mean you have colorectal cancer. However, it’s still important to talk to your doctor, as these could be signs of an underlying health issue.
Colon cancer risk factors
Every year, 140,000 men and women in the United States are diagnosed with colon cancer, but it’s one of the few cancers that can be prevented. Catching it early is the key to improving your chances for survival. In fact, if discovered in its earliest stage — stage 1 colorectal cancer — the 5-year survival rate is over 90 percent.
Colon cancer risk factors include:
- Family history of colon cancer, rectal cancer or polyps
- Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or chronic ulcerative colitis)
- History of colorectal cancer or polyps
- Lack of exercise
- A diet that’s high in red meat, processed meats or meats cooked at very high heat
- Type 2 diabetes
- Consuming too much alcohol
How is colon cancer diagnosed?
Because colon cancer symptoms may not have early signs, the disease can often be difficult to diagnose. However, in early stages, a colorectal cancer diagnosis can save your life.
We offer screening tests that use the most advanced technology to better detect colorectal cancer in its earliest stages, when it’s most treatable. Some of the diagnostic tests your doctor may perform to test for colorectal cancer include:
- Colonoscopy – Colonoscopies are the best way to detect colon cancer early. The procedure is simple, typically takes under an hour and you’ll be able to return to normal activities the following day.
- A colonoscopy is a minimally invasive procedure in which your doctor will screen your rectum and colon for colon polyps or cancer. During a colonoscopy procedure, your doctor will use a long, flexible tube called a colonoscope. This device has a tiny video camera at the tip which allows your colonoscopy doctor to view the inside of your entire colon. The procedure pinpoints changes or abnormalities in the colon and rectum and is an opportunity for your doctor to remove any abnormal tissue, such as polyps.
- If polyps are discovered during your procedure, your doctor and care team will work with you to determine next steps. Our team can help manage even complex colon cancer polyps, often times without surgery.
- The American Cancer Society recommends all men and women with an average risk of colorectal cancer begin regular screenings at age 45. But if colon cancer runs in your family, you should start your colonoscopy screenings sooner.
- Imaging tests – Your doctor may take images of your colon and rectum, along with surrounding areas. Imaging tests can be used to discover possible tumors, detect if a tumor has spread and evaluate whether treatment is working. These types of diagnostic tests may include computed tomography (CT) scan, MRI scan and colonoscopy.
- Digital rectal exam – Your doctor may conduct a physical exam by inserting a gloved finger into your rectum to search for polyps or other health concerns.
- Blood test – Your doctor may order blood work to look for certain indicators of colorectal cancer or monitor how your treatment is progressing.
- Cologuard – This take-at-home test collects a small sample of stool to be tested for malignant (cancerous) DNA. While the Cologuard® test is considered effective at detecting cancer and large, noncancerous polyps, a traditional colonoscopy is recommended as it can also eliminate abnormal polyp growth.
Treating colon cancer
At Geisinger, our highly trained team of colorectal cancer specialists includes surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, nurse navigators and support staff who come together to develop a personalized treatment plan around you. Our cancer specialists are experienced in advanced detection and treating all stages of colorectal cancer, and have access to leading-edge technology and innovative clinical trials.
Depending on the type, location and stage of your colorectal cancer, one or more of the following treatments may be recommended.
Surgery for colon cancer is one of the most common methods of treating the disease.
At Geisinger, our surgeons use the latest techniques to treat colorectal cancer, including minimally invasive and robotic surgery, to offer you the best outcomes and path for healing. Our surgeons are highly trained and board certified, which means they have passed an optional national exam to demonstrate their medical expertise. Many of our surgeons are also fellowship trained, holding additional training in specific types of cancer surgery.
- Polypectomy, in which a flexible tube with a camera is guided to the polyp to remove it with a tiny, scissor-like instrument.
- Colectomy, in which the part of the colon that contains the cancerous area is removed. Your surgeon will also remove nearby lymph nodes for examination beneath a microscope to evaluate whether the cancer is at risk for spreading.
Chemotherapy is a drug-based treatment designed to slow the growth of or shrink tumors located in the colon and rectum.
Chemotherapy drugs can be given through an IV or taken in a pill form.
The timing of your chemotherapy may be given:
- Before your surgery, to attempt to reduce the size of the tumor
- After your surgery, to destroy any cancer that still remains in the colorectal area and reduce the chances of the cancer coming back
- Along with radiation therapy, which together are known as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy
Our team includes doctors called medical oncologists who specialize in chemotherapy. Our patients have access to clinical trials that include testing new chemotherapy drugs and combinations of medications that aren’t widely available.
Keeping you comfortable while you undergo your treatment is important to us. Our state-of-the-art clinics, many which have been recently renovated, offer heated seats and individual TVs to help you stay comfortable during treatment.
Radiation oncology uses radiation to control or destroy harmful cancer cells, with tools to treat each unique cancer.
Our board-certified cancer doctors and highly skilled clinical team deliver conventional radiotherapy treatments that include:
- External beam radiation, which uses special technology to send radiation to the tumor from outside the body
- Internal radiation, which targets the tumor using safe levels of radiation inside the body
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), which uses a 3D image of the tumor to deliver high-precision radiotherapy that fits its exact outline
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT), which is used to treat cancers in areas of the body that move during and between treatments, like the lungs
Colon cancer care at Geisinger
Cancer is unique to each person, which is why Geisinger’s cancer care team gets to know you along your journey. While some of our cancer specialists are trained in treating specific cancers, our entire team works together to help you fight your cancer.
Our colon cancer specialists are dedicated to providing innovative treatments and personalized cancer care. We offer:
- Unmatched expertise – Our cancer team consists of surgeons, doctors and specialists, many of whom are fellowship trained. This team of highly trained specialists treats many patients with colon and other cancers each year, and is focused on delivering the most personalized, excellent care that is suited to each patient’s needs.
- World-class care, close to home – With locations throughout central, northeast and south-central Pennsylvania, our experienced cancer team provides consultations and comprehensive care. We offer leading-edge treatment options and tailored-to-you care backed by the expertise and innovation of a nationally recognized health system.
- Comprehensive specialty care – From chemotherapy, radiation and minimally invasive surgery options to national clinical trials and genetic testing, our colorectal cancer specialists are dedicated to offering innovative treatment options and personalized care in convenient locations, so you don’t have to travel far.
- Leading-edge clinical trials – Our extensive history with cancer research and clinical trials gives you access to new treatments before they become widely available. Participating in a trial may help you get better even if standard approaches haven’t worked. Find a clinical trial.
- Genetic testing and counseling programs – Our cancer genetics programs determine whether you face a higher-than-normal cancer risk. Special programs such as MyCode®, which are only available at Geisinger, detect the earliest signs of certain cancers, so you can start treatment right away if you choose. Our Lynch screening program tests for Lynch syndrome, an inherited trait that can increase your risk for colorectal cancer. Our care and guidance may even help you avoid a cancer diagnosis. Learn more or sign up for MyCode.
- Cancer survivorship program– Just because your treatment is complete doesn’t mean your journey has ended. We offer a variety of support resources focused on helping you live your healthiest life. Learn about patient resources.