Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of adult cancer deaths. It can be prevented or detected at an early stage. The disease forms in the colon or rectum. MaineHealth provides screening, diagnosis and treatment for colon cancer and all gastrointestinal (GI) cancers, close to home. Our care team includes board-certified colorectal surgeons.
Importance of Screenings
Most colon cancers develop from polyps that can turn into cancer. Screenings can find polyps before they are cancer. People at average risk of colon cancer are recommended for screening starting at age 45. Talk to your provider about scheduling a screening. Some people may be at higher risk and need to be screened earlier:
- African Americans
- People who have close relatives with cancer
- Patients with IBD (inflammatory bowel disease)
- Certain genetic syndromes
- Lifestyle factors: obesity, smoking, heavy alcohol use, eating a lot of red meat and fatty foods
Finding a Colorectal Cancer Specialist
If your provider thinks you may have cancer, you will be asked to see specialists who evaluate and treat colon cancer:
- Medical oncologists treat cancer using medicine (chemotherapy, targeted therapy, biotherapy and/or immunotherapy) rather than radiation.
- Radiation oncologists use high-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells while sparing surrounding normal tissue.
- Surgeons focus on the surgical management of cancer
- Cancer Patient Navigators put the patient first, helping you and your loved ones connect to resources and services.
Lower Your Risk of Colon Cancer
Certain lifestyle choices can increase your risk of getting colon cancer. They include:
- Eating lots of red meat (beef, pork, lamb), processed meats (deli foods) and fatty foods
- Heavy alcohol use (eight or more drinks per week for women; 15 or more drinks weekly for men)
- Not getting enough exercise or physical activity
Talk to your provider about getting help to quit or change activities that are affecting your health and putting you at a higher risk for cancer.
Understanding Colon Cancer Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment
The following information is on knowing the symptoms, screenings, diagnosis and treatments for colorectal cancer. Read on to learn about how to help lower your risk and prevent colon cancer.
Colon cancer signs can vary
Symptoms of colon cancer can depend on the size of the tumor and its location in the lower GI tract.
Common signs are:
- Changes in bowel movements
- Blood in the stool (bright red or black)
- Feeling tired or rundown
- Stomach discomfort
Diagnosing colon cancer
Doctors recommend that people 45 and older (younger if there is a family history) have regular colon cancer screenings. Colon Cancer Screenings help prevent and detect colon cancer. Early detection is a patient’s best chance for successful treatment and recovery.
Colonoscopy and FIT tests are the standard screening for colon cancer. During a colonoscopy, doctors look for signs of cancer and also remove any polyps that may have formed in a patient’s colon. Removing polyps, or small growths, before they turn into cancer is the best way to prevent colon cancer. A screening colonoscopy if negative is repeated every 10 years.
The FIT test requires the collection of a stool sample that is tested and this needs to be repeated annually.
Other screenings for colon cancer can include flexible sigmoidoscopy, fecal occult blood test, fecal immunoassay (FIT test), double contrast barium enema, CT colonography (or virtual colonoscopy).
Colon cancer therapies can vary
Treatment for colon cancer varies depending on cancer stage and type. Complementary and integrative therapies, while not primary treatment options can be discussed with our providers. The size of the cancer and how far it has spread will affect treatment options. Common treatments include:
Colorectal cancer may be prevented through screening, which means having tests to try to keep cancer from developing or to treat it at a very early stage.
- Regular screenings are recommended for older adults. Talk to your primary care doctor about setting up a screening, if you have not talked about it already.
- Some populations may be more at risk of colorectal cancer. If you are of African American descent, you provider may recommend you start regular screenings at an earlier age.
- People with close relatives who have had colon cancer may be advised to start screenings at an earlier age. Talk to your primary care provider.
- IBD, or inflammatory bowel disease, can put you at great risk of cancer. Discuss screening strategies with your provider.
Other Risk Factors
You may be at greater risk for colorectal cancer for the reasons listed below. Talk to your primary care provider to see if you need to be screened for colorectal cancer.
- Family history of polyps or colorectal cancer
- Certain genetic syndromes
- Your diet consists of a lot of red meat (beef, pork, lamb)
- You do not get much exercise or physical activity
- Other lifestyle factors include obesity, smoking, alcohol overuse (eight or more drinks per week for women; 15 or more drinks for men)
Getting a second opinion is not uncommon in cancer care. At MaineHealth, we know how important it is to be confident in your colon cancer care approach and treatment. We want to make every effort to facilitate a second opinion, whenever the patient – and in many situations, the provider – wants to seek a second opinion. This is important to us, and our focus on patient-centered care.
What is a second opinion?
A second opinion is when a patient or physician seeks another physician specialist’s review of a patient’s diagnosis or recommended treatment. It is common in cancer, especially if a patient has an unusually complicated condition or rare form of the disease.
When you choose to obtain a second opinion, your physician forwards test results such as radiology images, blood work and pathology slides. The physician may recommend another physician specializing in that cancer, or the patient may find a specialist through a primary care physician, online research or a relative or friend’s recommendation.
To confirm that insurance will cover the cost of second opinion visits, it is recommended that you verify by contacting your insurance company directly.
Preparing for your visit
Like all visits for cancer care, when you are getting a second opinion, it’s helpful to write down your questions in advance and take notes during the conversation. Physicians often recommend that you bring someone with you to help you recall the discussion later. It can be difficult to process what you’re hearing especially if you’re scared or anxious about your condition.
Physicians also may seek another physician’s opinion either on a one-on-one basis, or by asking a multidisciplinary group of cancer specialists to review and weigh in on a patient’s diagnosis or treatment. This team of specialists includes medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and surgical oncologists, as well pathologists, pharmacists and patient navigators. They meet regularly to review patients’ cases.
Where to go for a second opinion?
MaineHealth offers sites where patients and their physicians may obtain second opinions. Each site includes cancer experts who have advanced training and experience.