How Is Colorectal Cancer Treated?
If cancer is found, the next step is to do tests to see whether it has spread.
Doctors use a four-level system of numbers or letters to stage, or classify,
the cancer. The lower the number or letter, the less the cancer has spread.
A higher number, for example, stage IV, means a more serious stage of
The three main types of treatment for colorectal cancer are surgery,
radiation therapy, and chemotherapy:
■ Surgery is the main treatment for both colon and rectal cancer.
In some more advanced instances of rectal cancer, a person may
need to have a colostomy*. Colostomies usually are not needed in
■ Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells.
It is used to destroy small areas of cancer that might not have been
removed during surgery.
■ Chemotherapy (kee-mo-THER-a-pee) refers to the use of anticancer
drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs may be given through a
vein in the arm or as pills. Through either method, the drugs can
enter the bloodstream and can reach any area of the body where
metastasized cancer cells may have traveled.
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Can Colorectal Cancer Be Prevented?
People can take steps to reduce their risk and in many cases to prevent
colorectal cancer from developing.
Screening and other precautions Because finding colorectal
cancer early often means it can be cured, people age 50 and older
should follow the screening guidelines established by the American
Cancer Society. Younger people whose close relatives (mother, father,
sister, or brother) have had colorectal cancer or physical conditions that
increase the risk for colorectal cancer should begin screening earlier than age 50. Younger people who have had colorectal cancer already must be
particularly careful to follow up with their doctors regularly to make sure
the cancer does not return.
Two tests are used to detect polyps that have the potential to develop
into colon cancer; the earlier these are detected and removed the more
likely cancer can be prevented. In sigmoidoscopy (sig-moyd-OS-kopee),
the doctor uses a slender, lighted tube linked to a video camera
to examine the rectum and lower part of the colon, areas where most
cancers and polyps are found. Another test is the colonoscopy (ko-lon-
OS-ko-pee), in which a long, thin, flexible tube linked to a video camera
allows the doctor to examine the entire length of the colon. If polyps
are found, they can be removed using a wire loop. Because polyps take
6 to 10 years to develop into cancers, removing them early can prevent
them from becoming cancerous. Colorectal cancer is highly curable if it
is caught early.
Eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, and never smoking
are other precautions people can take to decrease their risk.
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What Is It Like to Live with Colorectal Cancer?
Caught in the early stages, colorectal cancer is one of the most curable
cancers. People recover from surgery and resume their normal lives. Many
people are embarrassed about having colorectal cancer, however, because
it involves a part of the body they do not usually talk about. Moreover,
people who have had permanent colostomies may feel different from
everyone else and embarrassed by the colostomy bag. Everyone’s reaction
to cancer and to treatment is different. There is no single right way to
handle it. Support groups can be particularly helpful for people who are
living with this very curable form of cancer.
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