Most people are diagnosed with colon cancer after undergoing screening measures and testing. There are several tests that can be done to examine the intestines for colon cancer. The test most recommended and most effective is the colonoscopy. During this exam, a flexible, long scope with a small camera attached on the end of it is passed through the intestine. The doctor is able to view the entire colon and rectum with the camera. If the doctor comes across any polyps that look cancerous, they can be removed at that time and sent for testing. That is the reason why this test is most beneficial—it can catch the pre-cancerous polyp before it starts to grow and cause problems. Also, under the new Affordable Care Act, most insurance companies have to cover the costs of this exam as it falls under the umbrella of preventative screening care. Once a colorectal cancer diagnosis is made, the doctor will need to determine the stage of the cancer. There are four stages:
- Stage 1 is localized and the easiest to treat.
- Stage 2 has spread through layers of the colon wall but not yet to the lymph nodes.
- Stage 3 has reached the lymph nodes.
- Stage 4 has spread to other organs. Stage 4 is the hardest to treat.
The cancer is progressively worse as the Stage increases. When the cancer is diagnosed early, most treatments are mildly invasive. For example, small polyps can be removed during the colonoscopy, or a minimally invasive laparoscopy (small incisions in the abdomen where the doctor can insert tools to remove larger polyps). If the cancer is more advanced and has grown through the wall of the colon, segments of the colon may need to be removed.
This removal can lead to a temporary or permanent colostomy (a portion of the intestine is pulled to the surface of the skin on the abdomen and a bag is placed over the opening to collect waste). Another type of treatment is chemotherapy. This form of treatment uses medications that destroy the cancer cells, and it is often initiated after surgery or when cancer spreads to lymph nodes. Radiation therapy uses highly powerful energy sources to kill cancerous cells. However, it is often not used in early-stage cancer. Lastly, there are a host of facilities around the world that are developing research and experiments to treat cancer. Some people may enter clinical trials for alternative forms of treatment.