What Is Colon Cancer?

Colon cancer is the second leading type of cancer in the United States. The disease strikes over 140,000 Americans annually and causes 60,000 deaths. What’s more, colon cancer is potentially curable if diagnosed in the early stages.

“One of the big diseases that we treat is colon cancer,” says J. Timothy Tolland, MD, a board-certified colon and rectal surgeon at the Colon & Rectal Surgery Associates “Of course that’s what everyone is worried about. Colon cancer is a disease of aging. We generally don’t see it in our 20s and 30s, although it’s possible. However, 93% of people with colon cancer are age 50 and above.”

Colon Cancer Overview

Colon cancer refers to cancer that originates and affects the large intestine, and rectal cancer to cancer impacting the rectum. Collectively, the two are known as colorectal cancer. The food we eat first travels through the stomach and small intestine, and then is processed and further absorbed by the colon. The solid waste left over is transferred to the rectum and eliminated from the body.

“Colon cancer occurs in about 150,000 people a year in the U.S.,” says Dr. Tolland. “By colon cancer, I mean colon and rectal cancer as both are an extension of each other. The rectum is the lower part of the colon.”

What is the Origin of Colon Cancer?

colonoscopy graphic

Colon cancer typically starts out with the formation of polyps, flat or knobby growths that arise from the inner lining of the colon. The actual cause of polyps is not known but may be related to dietary or hereditary factors. Diets high in fiber and low in animal fats reduce the likelihood of colon polyps and cancer.

Polyps can cause symptoms like bleeding, constipation or blood in the stool. More often than not, however, polyps do not generate any symptoms, and many patients may not even know they have them. The best way to detect the presence of polyps is with a colonoscopy, a quick and easy procedure performed in the doctor’s office.

The majority of polyps are benign, however, some can grow and become cancerous. The risk of cancer transformation depends on the type and size of the polyp. The risk varies from a few percents to 40 percent. That is why when a colon surgeon detects the presence of polyps during a colonoscopy, they are typically taken out during the procedure.

How is Colon Cancer Treated?

According to Dr. Tolland, the primary treatment for colon cancer is surgery which is best performed by surgeons highly trained in the medical and surgical treatment of the diseases of the colon, rectum, and anus.

“The treatment for colon and rectal cancer generally comes down to surgery,” says Dr. Tolland. “The cancer has to be removed, and we are colon and rectal specialists. Other people can remove colon cancers, and some people do go to general surgeons who also sometimes perform colon surgery.”

“However, most people want to go to a specialist. If you have a brain tumor, you go to a neurosurgeon. If you have colon cancer, people want to go to a colon and rectal surgeon. We are experts at colon surgery. We do these surgeries day in and day out. It’s all we do. And it’s why we don’t do other surgeries like breast, gallbladder, and hernia surgery.”

“We know how to take out the colon cancer in the best possible way, invasively or non-invasively,” Dr. Tolland continues. “We know how to get all the lymph nodes, and how to obtain the highest possible cure rate.”

Sometimes complementary treatment is needed before or following surgery to give the patient the best chance of success. The surgeons at the Colon & Rectal Surgery Associates have established relationships with leading specialists in oncology and radiation therapy.

“If necessary, we involve our colleagues like oncologists and radiation therapists either before or after the surgery, as an adjunct to our treatment,” says Dr. Tolland. “Not all colon cancer is treated with chemotherapy; many are only treated with surgery, followed, and cured, and the cure rates tend to be quite high.”

Early Colon Cancer Detection is Critical for Survival

Dr. Tolland with patient“If you look at all cancers in the U.S., colon cancer is one of the more treatable cancers, with 65% of people with colon cancer being cured,” says Dr. Tolland. “As opposed to something like pancreatic cancer in which only 7% of people are cured. It’s almost universal death; it is the same with brain tumors.”

“Colon cancer is a very curable disease,” concludes Dr. Tolland. “And it’s completely curable if you find it before it’s cancer when it’s in the form of polyps, and that’s why we do colonoscopies and take polyps out.”

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