What is colon cancer?
This is among the most common forms of cancer. It affects the colon and the rectum, two organs in the lower region of the digestive system that function similarly, which is why they are grouped together. The colon retains waste and collects water and food, whereas the rectum excretes bodily waste.
Usually, if you find out about the cancer early enough, it can be treated, and the chances of recovery are pretty high. On the other hand, this type of cancer can be sneaky and spread really fast, leading to metastasis. At this stage, the cancer has spread to other organs. The most common ones are the liver, lungs, brain, and distant lymph nodes.
The stages and the spreading. How do they work?
While discussing the evolution of cancer, experts divide it into stages. This type of approach can assist doctors in determining and better understanding the best treatment options as well as how far the tumor has spread.
Colorectal cancer is classified into five stages, with stage 0 being the earliest one and stages 1-4 indicating the extent of spread. If the number is lower, the spread is also lower. If the cancer reaches the third stage, it’s called malignant because it has spread to the lymph nodes that are close to it but has not spread to other organs or areas. If the cancer has spread beyond the lymph nodes, it has reached the fourth and final stage.
Usually, when colorectal cancer becomes metastatic, it tends to spread to the liver. The main reason this happens is that a large part of the liver’s blood supply comes from the portal vein. This blood vessel transfers blood from the spleen and intestines, so it is a direct line between the liver and the colon, or rectum.
There are also many other areas where it can spread, such as the lungs, the lining of the abdominal cavity, the distal lymph nodes, or even the brain.
Early signs of colorectal cancer
Polyps cause the majority of tumors in the colon and rectum; therefore, screening for and removing them when they first appear will help prevent them from developing into cancers.
Here are some of the most common early symptoms of colorectal cancer:
Rectal bleeding: This can be visible on the toilet paper or if you can see any blood in the stool. Keep in mind that this symptom can also be caused by hemorrhoids;
Changes in bowel habits: You may notice that the consistency, appearance, or frequency of your stools has changed;
Abdominal pain: You begin to have cramps in the lower part of your abdomen and sometimes in the lower part of your back, and you can also feel bloated constantly;
Unexplained weight loss: suddenly you start to lose weight without changing anything in your diet or the level of physical activity;
Weaknesses and constant fatigue: You are getting enough sleep, but you are still feeling very tired.
Now, we are going to take a look at the signs that can indicate your cancer has secretly spread to other organs.
The liver is an essential organ in our bodies, and its role is to eliminate toxic substances. It also helps with digestion by producing bile, which is a fluid that eases the whole process of decomposition and assimilation of nutrients from food.
As we mentioned earlier, colorectal cancer can easily spread to the liver because all the organs involved are connected through the same blood vessel.
Jaundice: This is the yellowing of the skin and is caused by a buildup of bilirubin. Enlarged liver and abdominal pain: You can feel like there is a painful heaviness in the upper right side of your abdomen. Fatigue and weakness: As the cancer is affecting the normal function of the liver, you may notice that you become tired really fast. Swelling in the legs; Weight loss; itching.
Cancer can spread to the lungs from other organs, including the colon since the lungs receive blood flow from the rest of the body. This process is called hematogenous spread, and it means that the cancer cells can travel via the bloodstream from the original tumor to other organs.
Shortness of breath and other breathing difficulties: this is one of the most common indications that something is wrong with your lungs and can also be a sign of metastasis; chest pain; fatigue; blood in the mucus after coughing; unexplained weight loss; persistent cough: a cough that doesn’t go away can be a sign that cancer has spread to the lungs.
Colon cancer can also spread to the bones. When bones are affected by metastatic cancer, calcium can be released into the bloodstream. This can result in hypercalcemia, and a lot of new symptoms might occur.
Bone pain: this is one of the most common symptoms if cancer has spread to the bones. The pain can either be dull or sharp, and its localization depends on the area cancer has affected.
Bone fractures: cancer can damage the bone tissue, making it more susceptible to breaks and fractures. Furthermore, the fractures caused by this can occur with little or no trauma.
Hypercalcemia: This happens because calcium is released from the bones into the bloodstream. High levels of calcium can lead to nausea, constipation, and muscle weakness.
Unexplained weight loss.
It is unusual for colon cancer to go to the brain. In fact, brain metastases affect less than 3% of people with colorectal cancer. Even with this low rate, colon cancer is still one of the cancers most likely to cause brain metastasis. The most common types of cancer that can spread to the brain are lung, breast, and kidney cancers.
One misunderstanding that is actually quite widespread is to think that if colorectal cancer spreads to the brain, it means that you now suffer from brain cancer. This is not true.
When cancer spreads from one part of the body to another, the tumors that form are still composed of cancerous cells from the original body part. So, the cancerous cells that are now growing in the brain are still colon cells and not cancerous brain cells.
Some symptoms of colon cancer that has metastasized to the brain are seizures, vomiting, memory loss, headache, nausea, numbness, or weakness in the whole body.
What is the best treatment?
The treatment for advanced colorectal cancer depends on many factors, such as how far the tumor has spread, the location of the tumor or tumors, and their size. The age of the patient, their overall health, and any potential adverse effects from cancer therapy are also taken into account.
The prognosis for metastatic colon cancer is not promising, which is why the treatment is designed to prolong life and alleviate some of the symptoms rather than cure it. There is still a small chance of curing it through surgical interventions that remove all the tumors.
Usually, the treatment for metastatic colorectal cancer continues with the aim of keeping the cancer under control for as long as possible. Because everyone responds in their own unique way to treatments, some may be more effective for them than others.
Chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and radiation therapy are at this moment the most effective ways to control the spread of colorectal cancer. Also, in recent years, a variety of targeted therapies for advanced colorectal cancer have been approved.
If we look at the most recent five-year survival rate for advanced colon cancer, we can see that the survival rate is 13.8%. This means that this percentage of people are still alive five years after being diagnosed. Still, these ratings are subjective, and they do not determine your individual outcome.
The book Surviving and Thriving with Colon Cancer is an amazing resource for those who want to learn how to live a better life when they are suffering from this condition.
You should also check out: 5 Cancers Most Likely to Spread to Your Bones