Colon Cancer; Key Q&A

Colon Cancer; Key Q&A

My health care professional told me I have polyps. What are these and how will they be treated?

Colorectal polyps are excess growths of tissue in the lining of your colon or rectum. They can be noncancerous (hyperplastic), precancerous (adenomas), or cancerous. All colorectal cancers develop from precancerous polyps. Therefore, if these precancerous polyps are removed during colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, they will no longer be able to grow into cancer. Most colorectal polyps are easily removed during colonoscopy without the need for surgery. Once you have polyps, you are at increased risk for developing more polyps in the future and need repeated screening to detect and remove them.

My father and grandmother both had colon cancer. What are my risks and what should I do?

First, realize the disease is highly curable–90 percent survive five years or longer–when diagnosed early. When the cancer spreads to other distant places like the lung or liver, however, the survival rate is only 10 percent. A family history of colon cancer or adenomatous polyps significantly increases your chances of developing the disease, and the more family members you have with colon cancer, the higher your risk. Make an appointment with your health care professional now to discuss your personal and family health history and determine the next steps you should take. You will need to have colorectal cancer screening starting at the age of 40 or 10 years before the age at which the youngest relative was diagnosed with cancer. You will probably have regular surveillance of your colon by colonoscopy. You may also want to seek genetic counseling and/or testing.

Is there any way to reduce my risks for colon cancer?

Most important is to ask your health care professional about colorectal polyp/cancer screening beginning at age 50 (45 for African Americans) if you are at average risk, or earlier if you have family members (such as your father, mother, sister or brother) who had colorectal polyps or cancer. If you undergo appropriate screening for colorectal cancer, you may decrease your risk of death from colorectal cancer by over 60 percent. This is because we can detect and remove precancerous polyps before they turn into cancer, most effectively by colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. Research increasingly suggests that a diet high in fiber, fruits and vegetables and low in fat may help reduce your risk for colon cancer. Taking calcium and folic acid may prevent formation of precancerous polyps and colon cancer. And getting regular exercise may help, too.

My health care professional told me my cancer had metastasized and that I had a “met” in another place besides the colon. What does that mean?

“Met” is short for metastasis, which means the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Any time your health care professional uses a word you don’t understand, stop him or her right there and ask what that word means.

What are my chances of a cure?

No one really knows if cancer is totally cured. But it is sometimes pushed back so far it never grows again, which is called achieving remission or long-term survival. Your chances of surviving for a long time largely depend on the stage of your cancer at the time of diagnosis and the success of treatments you receive. The earlier the cancer is detected, the higher your chances for long-term survival.

My cancer is pretty advanced. How long have I got?

Any number that a health care professional gives you is based on estimates derived from experiences with other patients. No one can tell you what your specific chances are. Survival averages are just that: averages.

What can I do about this ongoing pain?

One of the worst things that cancer patients do is to suffer pain when they do not have to! Discuss your pain with your health care professional so that you can get the relief you need. It might be necessary to see a pain specialist. Most health care professionals can refer you to someone who specifically handles chronic pain problems. If you have severe pain, narcotics may be the best type of medicine.

What caused this? Was it something I did? How long did it take to grow?

No one is really sure what causes colorectal cancer. It’s very unlikely that it was something you did. It’s possible that the tendency to get the disease is hereditary, that is, it may run in families. A polyp in your colon can take as many as 10 years to become cancerous. Colorectal cancer is difficult to find without regular screening and often does not cause symptoms until it’s already well developed. So don’t beat yourself up that you didn’t “catch” it a few months ago.


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Keywords: colon cancer, colorectal cancer, colorectal polyp

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