Colorectal cancer is a common cancer that can be detected and treated early. Early treatment increases the chances of recovery.
What areas of the body are affected?
You have probably heard the term “large intestine” before. This is the final part of the digestive tract. It consists of a long tube divided into segments, the last ones being the colon, the rectum and the anal canal. The primary function of the large intestine is to temporarily store food waste following the digestive process, and to evacuate it from the body in the form of stools.
Colorectal cancer affects the final part of the large intestine, more specifically the colon or the rectum.
How common is colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada. Moreover, it is the third most frequently diagnosed cancer. It is estimated that 1 in 14 men, and 1 in 18 women will develop colorectal cancer in the course of their lifetime.
This type of cancer occurs more frequently in people over the age of 50, and the risk of developing it increases with age.
What are the risk factors of colorectal cancer?
Some people are at greater risk of developing colorectal cancer. Here are some examples of known risk factors:
- a family history of colorectal cancer
- inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
- intestinal or rectal polyps
- overconsumption of alcohol
- physical inactivity
- diet high in red meat or processed meats
- low-fibre diet
It is interesting to note that lifestyle changes can help reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
Another important fact: a person can get colorectal cancer even without any risk factors!
How do you know if you have colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer is often “silent” in its early stages and can progress and manifest itself through various signs and symptoms. Here are some examples:
- stomach aches
- bloating and flatulence
- changes in the amount, frequency or appearance of stools
- presence of blood in the stools
- black or coloured stools
- fatigue or weakness
- weight loss
Colorectal cancer can be diagnosed using different methods, the most commonly known of which is a colonoscopy. This procedure consists of inserting a tube with a camera through the rectum to examine the inside of the colon and detect the presence of abnormalities, such as polyps or abnormal lesions.
During a colonoscopy, a biopsy can be taken of tissue from the intestinal or rectal wall for analysis.
Can colorectal cancer be detected if there are no signs or symptoms?
There are various screening tests for colorectal cancer. The purpose of screening is to detect this type of cancer early so that it can be treatment quickly. In Quebec, after the age of 50, it is recommended to undergo a test that involves a stool analysis every two years.
This simple test is called the fecal occult blood test (FOBT or "FIT test"). It detects the presence of blood in the stool in amounts that are invisible to the naked eye. It must be ordered by a licensed healthcare professional, such as a doctor. The result of this test does not confirm a diagnosis, but rather whether or not another test, such as a colonoscopy, should be performed.
For people at particular risk, screening should be considered before age 50. The doctor will determine the appropriate screening method and frequency based on the individual's specific situation.
Ask your doctor about screening and whether you should be tested based on your personal risk assessment.
How does colorectal cancer progress?
Colorectal cancer usually progresses slowly and in a fairly predictably way. A person can have it for years without knowing it, especially if they have no symptoms.
The chances of recovery are increased when it is diagnosed in the early stages, which is why early detection is so important. Treatment is more effective if the disease has not spread outside the colon.
Do curative treatments exist?
Treatment for colorectal cancer can involve various measures, including:
- radiation therapy
- targeted therapy (e.g. monoclonal antibodies)
The treatment plan depends on several factors, including the person’s age, medical history and health, the type, location, stage and extent of the disease, the presence of metastases, etc. It involves the expertise of a care team that specializes in the management of this type of cancer.
If you have any health-related questions, speak to your pharmacist, who is always there to help you!