7 Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Colon Cancer


Even though colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, people may still find it embarrassing to talk to their doctor about prevention, symptoms, and treatment. One reason for this is that colon cancer involves the rectum, a part of the body most people don’t like to talk about in polite company.

However, this shouldn’t include your doctor. He or she is there to help you navigate your diagnosis and treatment or to prevent colon cancer if possible. Despite its common and deadly nature, colon cancer is also highly treatable when caught early. This is one reason why doctors recommend routine colonoscopies starting at age 50. If you have recently received a diagnosis of colon cancer, it’s important that you understand the disease and your treatment options. Below are seven questions to ask your doctor as soon after the diagnosis as possible:

  1. Is there a difference between colon and rectal cancer? Which type do I have? Collectively, doctors refer to colon and rectal cancer as colorectal cancer even though they describe two different things. Approximately one-third of people with this diagnosis have rectal cancer and the other two-thirds have colon cancer. As its name suggests, rectal cancer affects the rectum alone. It’s harder to treat than colon cancer and both fatalities and recurrence rates tend to be higher. If you receive a diagnosis of colon cancer while still in Stage I, II, or III, it’s usually curable with surgery to remove the tumor and chemotherapy later.
  2. What types of treatment options do I have? Surgery is the typical answer to this question for patients with colon cancer in the earlier stages. Chemotherapy comes next as well as radiation therapy if needed. Colon cancer patients diagnosed at Stage IV will usually undergo chemotherapy first to shrink the tumor before a surgeon attempts to remove it. Those with rectal cancer or a large tumor on their colon will notice that they need to use the bathroom more often. Some patients require an ostomy bag to collect waste. This could be temporary or permanent.
  3. What side effects can I expect from chemotherapy drugs? Some types of platinum-based drugs used in chemotherapy can cause neuropathy, a condition that causes tingling sensations in the fingers and toes, extreme sensitivity to heat or cold, and several other symptoms. Your oncologist may be able to use newer targeted therapies in place of chemotherapy that produce fewer side effects.
  4. What about diet and exercise? Due to the link between colon cancer and excess intake of red meat, doctors typically advise patients to consume it in moderation. A diet high in fiber can help as well, but you shouldn’t make any drastic dietary changes while undergoing cancer treatment. Eat all things in moderation and try to walk for exercises as often as you feel up to it.
  5. How do I know if the chemotherapy is effective? It’s a good idea to ask your doctor about the known effectiveness of chemotherapy on colon and rectal tumors similar in size and location to the one you have. You should also know how many sessions you need to attend and what lifestyle limitations you will need to abide by during treatment, including whether you should continue working. Your oncologist will take regular X-rays and use other types of diagnostic equipment to gauge the effectiveness of your cancer treatment.
  6. What can I expect from surgery? You may have laparoscopic or open surgery, depending on the size of the tumor. Many doctors prefer the first type because it is minimally invasive. However, you may require open surgery if the tumor has grown to a large size or started to invade other organs. Be sure to ask your doctor to explain each procedure so you know what to expect in terms of time in surgery and recovery expectations.
  7. Is there a genetic link with colon or rectal cancer? Some medical conditions can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer. The most common one is Lynch syndrome, which can also increase the risk of endometrial cancer in women as well as other types of cancers. People who know they have Lynch syndrome sometimes opt to have part of the intestine remove in a procedure called prophylactic colectomy. This procedure increases the need to use the bathroom and requires you to follow several dietary restrictions. You shouldn’t schedule it unless you’re certain about a Lynch syndrome diagnosis and you want to be proactive about lessening the risk of colorectal cancer.

Your oncologist at Western Maryland Health System is available to answer these questions and more during your initial consultation. You’re also welcome to contact a member of your care team at any time with questions or concerns.

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