Colon Cancer Symptoms and Stages

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The colon plays an essential role in the digestive system. It is responsible for absorbing nutrients, water, and minerals that give the body the energy it needs to function. The colon also aids the body in forming and expelling feces. If it was possible to stretch the colon out from one end to the other, it would be nearly six feet in length. This means it takes up most of the space in the large intestine. The final six inches of the large intestine contains the anal canal and the rectum.

Symptoms of Colon Cancer: Local and Systemic

According to the National Cancer Institute, colon cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in the United States after breast and bladder cancer. Since people with colon cancer often exhibit no symptoms until the advanced stages, doctors recommend regular screening with a colonoscopy starting at age 50.  This allows them to detect and treat tumors of the colon as early as possible.

Local colon cancer affects the bathroom habits more than anything else. The most common symptoms associated with it include:

  • Bowel movements occur more frequently or not as often as usual
  • Bloating, cramps, gas pain, and other types of abdominal discomfort
  • Straining when having a bowel movement or being unable to produce one at all
  • A feeling of being unable to empty the bowels or stool that appears much thinner than usual
  • Frequent loose or watery stools
  • Experiencing both constipation and diarrhea on a regular basis
  • Presence of dark or bright red blood in the stool or black stool with a tar-like appearance

Systemic colon cancer means that the disease has progressed and the symptoms now affect the entire body. Typical systemic colon cancer symptoms include:

  • Reduced appetite
  • Losing weight without dieting
  • Jaundice, which appears as a yellow color on the skin or the white part of the eyes
  • Fatigue not relieved by rest
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Low red blood cell count

If you recognize symptoms from either of these lists, please schedule a screening appointment at Western Maryland Health System (WMHS) immediately. The sooner your doctor diagnoses the proper type of colon cancer, the sooner you can start treatment and have a better chance of recovery.

Stages of Colon Cancer

Stage 0 colon cancer

Stage 0 colon cancer, also called carcinoma in situ, means that cancer originated in the epithelial tissue and still remains there. At Stage 0, the typical treatment is a polypectomy to remove the tumor as well as a small amount of surrounding tissue. Larger tumors require a procedure called anastomosis to remove the diseased portion of the colon and reattachment of healthy tissue so you can maintain a functional digestive system.

Stage I colon cancer

Stage I colon cancer means that cancer has spread beyond its point of origination to the middle layers of the colon. Treatment is the same is at is for Stage 0. Aggressive surgery to remove all cancer from the colon can dramatically increase survival rates. The American Cancer Society states that 93 percent of patients survive past the five-year mark with Stage I colon cancer.

Stage II colon cancer

At Stage II, the tumors are larger and have extended through the colon’s muscular wall. However, there is no lymph node involvement. Surgery to remove cancer and the tissue surrounding it is standard procedure, although some doctors may also prescribe chemotherapy to prevent a future recurrence. The five-year survival rate for Stage II colon cancer is 78 percent.

Stage III colon cancer

A diagnosis of Stage III colon cancer means that cancer has gone beyond the colon into one or more lymph nodes. Stage IIIA indicates that the tumors are within the colon wall while Stage IIIB refers to tumors that have grown beyond the wall of the colon into one to four lymph nodes. Stage IIIC indicates the presence of five or more lymph nodes. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are the most common treatment options. The five-year survival rate for Stage III colon cancer is 64 percent and is higher for patients whose cancer has reached the fewest lymph nodes.

Stage IV colon cancer

Stage IV colon cancer indicates that cancer has spread to the lungs, liver, or other parts of the body. Tumors can grow to any size and sometimes affect the lymph nodes. As with stage III, treatment typically includes a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. At this stage, the five-year survival rate is just eight percent.

How to Reduce the Risk of Colon Cancer

The following steps can help control your risk:

  • Stop smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a diet that includes a wide range of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains because these foods include antioxidants, fiber, minerals, and vitamins
  • Get at least moderate exercise
  • Drink alcohol in moderation or consider quitting drinking altogether
  • Schedule regular colonoscopies after age 50

Your primary care provider at WMHS is happy to work with you to develop a plan to reduce your colon cancer risk.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing relating symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.