Colorectal Cancer

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After completing a thorough lab analysis of your recent biopsy, a specialized doctor called a pathologist reported a diagnosis of colorectal cancer, or cancer that begins in the colon or the rectum. Colorectal cancer is the third most common form of cancer in the western world. It occurs equally in men and women, and most frequently in African-Americans. The risk of developing the condition increases greatly after age 50, and the average age of diagnosis is 66.

About the Condition

The colon, or large intestine, is a tube lined with muscles that extracts moisture and nutrients from food, storing the waste matter until it is expelled from the body. It is typically 5–6 feet long in adults. The last segment of the colon is called the rectum.

Cancer occurs when cells in the lining of the colon or rectum do not develop and die in their normal manner. The extra cells that result form a growth, or tumor, which can be benign or malignant. Benign tumors are not cancer and do not spread throughout the body. Malignant tumors are cancer. Their cells may invade and damage surrounding areas or spread to other locations in the body (metastasize). About 95% of colorectal tumors begin as a type of polyp called an adenoma, a pre-cancerous growth that projects outward from the intestinal wall.

Colorectal cancer usually grows at a slow pace, but at times it can develop and metastasize quickly. Your doctor may want to perform one or more tests to help determine if the cancer has spread, which could include the following:

•  MRI Scan
•  Ultrasound
•  Lymph Node Biopsy
•  X-ray
•  CT Scan
•  Bone Scan

Cancer that is confined within the intestinal wall is the most manageable and curable. If malignant cells extend through the intestine into surrounding tissues, lymph nodes or other areas of the body, the treatment plan will be more complex and the cancer may not be curable. Many treatment options are available for patients with incurable colorectal cancer to help minimize pain and improve quality of life. Talk with your doctor about your specific stage of cancer.

Treatment Options

Deciding on a treatment plan for your colorectal cancer can be complex and depend upon a variety of factors, such as your age, general health condition, stage of cancer and personal preferences. Sometimes more than one type of therapy may be used. The following treatment possibilities are available:

Surgery The main form of treatment for colorectal cancer is surgery. When cancer is confined to a polyp, patients undergo a polypectomy or a local excision, which also removes a small amount of adjacent tissue. When cancer has spread into the intestinal wall or surrounding tissues, a partial resection is done to remove the tumor, part of the intestine and nearby lymph nodes. The intestine is then reconnected. When that is not possible, a colostomy is created to allow waste to leave the body through the abdominal wall to be collected in a bag. Sometimes a temporary colostomy is done to give the intestine time to heal before being reconnected.

Radiation Therapy Another common treatment method is radiation therapy, which can be delivered externally or internally. In external beam radiation — most often used to treat colorectal cancer — a high energy X-ray machine is used to direct radiation at the tumor. Internal radiation therapy destroys cancer cells with small implants that are placed directly into the tumor.

Chemotherapy The use of anti-cancer drugs, or chemotherapy, provides a way to slow tumor growth and reduce pain for patients whose cancer has spread outside of the large intestine. It also can help prevent the recurrence of surgically removed tumors. One particular method of chemotherapy, called downstaging, is sometimes used to shrink a tumor to make it surgically removable or to eliminate the need for a post-operative colostomy.

Biologic Therapy Newer therapy methods that employ man-made biologics are being used to treat colorectal cancer. These biologics, or synthetic proteins, are called monoclonal antibodies. They work by targeting specific proteins found on tumor cells.

You may also consider participating in clinical trials. These investigative studies help doctors learn about new treatments and better ways to use established treatments. Talk with your doctor about the possibility of taking part in a clinical trial in your area.

What You Can Do

You can choose to take an active role in your health and well-being. Learn as much as you can about your condition and have a list of questions ready each time you meet with your doctor. Join a cancer support group and talk with your family, friends, clergyperson or counselor as you feel comfortable. Also, be sure to get enough sleep every night.

Other steps you can take to maximize your health include eating a low-fat diet high in fruits and vegetables, avoiding the use of tobacco, limiting consumption of alcohol and red meat, taking part in some form of exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight.

Additional Resources

American Cancer Society, 800.227.2345,
American College of Gastroenterology, 301.263.9000,
National Cancer Institute, 800.422.6237,
Oncology Channel,

This patient resource sheet is provided to you as a service of CBLPath® and is intended for information purposes only. It may not fully describe all aspects of your diagnosis and is not meant to serve as medical advice or a substitute for professional medical care. Your physician can provide you with a thorough explanation of your diagnosis and appropriate treatment options, which may vary. Only you and your physician can determine your best treatment plan.

Updated 9.07