Updated 24 September 2023 | Approved By Dr. Umberto Russo
What is Colorectal Cancer?Bowel cancer, or colorectal cancer, is a type of cancer that affects the colon and rectum, which are parts of the digestive system. It usually starts as small growths called polyps on the inner lining of the colon, or rectum. Over time, some of these polyps can turn into cancer if they are not removed. Colorectal cancer often doesn't show many early symptoms, which is why regular check-ups and screenings are important. Early detection and healthy habits are crucial for reducing the risk and improving outcomes for those with colorectal cancer. <
Colorectal Cancer SymptomsColorectal cancer symptoms are signs that something might be wrong in the colon or rectum, parts of our digestive system. While some symptoms might not be noticeable at first, it's important to pay attention to any changes in our bodies. Remember, having these symptoms doesn't necessarily mean you have colorectal cancer. They can also be caused by other, less serious conditions. Common symptoms of colorectal cancer include:
- Changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhoea, constipation, or a feeling that your bowel doesn't completely empty.
- Blood in your stool
- Abdominal pain, including bloating or cramps.
- Unexpected weight loss.
- Fatigue and feeling low energy
Colorectal Cancer CausesColorectal cancer is caused by a combination of factors that affect the cells in the colon and rectum, parts of our digestive system. While the exact cause isn't always clear, there are several factors that can increase the risk of developing this type of cancer . It's important to note that having these risk factors doesn't mean you will definitely get colorectal cancer. Many people with risk factors never develop the disease, and some without any known risk factors can still develop it. Age, especially those over the age of 50.
- Those who have family members with colorectal cancer
- A diet high in processed meats and red meats and low in fibre, fruits, and vegetables can increase the risk.
- Those who perform little physical activity or exercise
- Those who are prone to developing polyps in the colon or rectum
- Having inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.
- Being obese or overweight
- Having diabetes
Colorectal Cancer Diagnosis and TestingA Colorectal cancer diagnosis involves several tests that help doctors find out if someone has this type of cancer. One important programme related to this is the Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in Australia. This programme aims to catch colorectal cancer early, when it's easier to treat.
ColonoscopiesDoctors use tests like colonoscopies, where a thin tube with a camera is used to look inside the colon and rectum. This helps them see any polyps or abnormal areas that might be cancerous.
Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT)Another test is the faecal occult blood test, which checks for tiny traces of blood in the stool that might not be visible to the naked eye. The Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in Australia sends free FOBT kits to eligible individuals aged 50 to 74 . This simple test can be done at home and helps detect any hidden blood in the stool. If blood is found, further tests like colonoscopies are recommended to confirm if cancer or polyps are present.
Imaging TestsImaging plays a crucial role in colorectal cancer diagnosis and treatment planning. Techniques like CT scans and MRIs help doctors visualise the extent of the cancer and whether it has spread to other areas of the body. These images aid in making informed decisions about the most effective treatment strategies, ensuring better outcomes for patients.
Colorectal Cancer TreatmentColorectal cancer treatment involves various approaches to help fight the cancer and improve a person's health . The type of treatment depends on factors like the stage of the cancer, the person's overall health, and their preferences. Additionally, your GP may refer you to a gastroenterologist for further support. Here are the main types of treatment:
SurgerySurgery is a common treatment for colorectal cancer. Surgeons remove the cancerous parts of the colon, or rectum. Sometimes, they might also remove nearby lymph nodes if the cancer has spread. In some cases, a colostomy or ileostomy might be needed, where a part of the intestine is brought to the outside of the body to allow waste to leave.
ChemotherapyThis treatment uses powerful medications to kill or slow down the growth of cancer cells. It can be given before surgery to shrink the tumour, after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells, or if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Radiation TherapyThis involves using high-energy rays to target and destroy cancer cells. It's often used before surgery to shrink the tumour or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.
Targeted TherapyThese are specialised drugs that target specific molecules involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells. They can sometimes be used in combination with chemotherapy.
ImmunotherapyThis newer approach helps the body's immune system recognise and attack cancer cells. It's not yet a common treatment for colorectal cancer, but research is ongoing.
Palliative CareThis type of care focuses on improving the quality of life for people with advanced cancer. It helps manage symptoms and side effects like pain, nausea, and fatigue.
Colorectal Cancer ComplicationsColorectal cancer can lead to various complications , which are problems that can arise as a result of the cancer or its treatment. It's important to work closely with the medical team to manage and address these complications. Doctors and healthcare professionals can provide guidance and support to help individuals deal with the physical and emotional challenges that can arise from colorectal cancer and its treatments. Here are some common complications:
- Metastasis, or the cancer spreading to other parts of the body, including the liver or lungs.
- Bowel obstruction, which causes blockage of the colon. This can lead to stomach pain, bloating, and constipation.
- Perforation or a hole developing in the weakened walls of the colon or rectum
- Side effects of treatments include fatigue, nausea, hair loss, and changes in blood counts.
- Poor nutrient absorption, leading to weight loss and weakness.
- Abnormal bowel functions and movements.
- Emotional and mental impact from the diagnosis of this condition, which can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.
- Surgical procedures like colostomies or ileostomies can lead to changes in body image and adjustments in daily routines.
Receiving quality care from highly experienced doctors is essential for a prompt diagnosis and receiving the correct medical treatment. With 24-7 MedCare, you can experience telemedicine from the convenience of your own home. Our friendly online doctors will be available 24/7 for a consultation, anytime and anywhere in Australia.
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- Cancer Australia. (2022). Bowel cancer statistics. https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/cancer-types/bowel-cancer/statistics
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2019.). Colorectal cancer in Australia: an overview, 2019. https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/aeb1af91-3dcf-445b-949a-7881cf30315d/phe194-colorectalcancer.pdf.aspx
- Johnson, C. M., Wei, C., Ensor, J. E., Smolenski, D. J., Amos, C. I., Levin, B., & Berry, D. A. (2013). Meta-analyses of colorectal cancer risk factors. Cancer causes & control, 24, 1207-1222.
- Cancer Council Victoria. (n.d.). Bowel cancer screening. CancerVic. https://www.cancervic.org.au/cancer-information/screening/bowel_cancer_screening
- Cancer Council Australia. (2017). Colorectal cancer guidelines. https://wiki.cancer.org.au/australia/Guidelines:Colorectal_cancer?_gl=1*1c77xtt*_gcl_au*MjEwODQ4OTU0Ni4xNjkxNzQ5OTI3#_ga=2.146329140.1061558498.1691749928-914602526.1683203160
- Bowel Cancer UK. (2019.). Long-term and late side effects of bowel cancer. https://www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk/about-bowel-cancer/living-with-and-beyond-bowel-cancer/long-term-and-late-side-effects/