Colon Cancer and Rectal Cancer (Colorectal cancer for short)
Are you experiencing bleeding when you pass motion? Change in bowel habit, abdominal pain, loss of appetite or even unintentional weight loss? You need to make sure it is not because of colorectal cancer.
The colon and the rectum together form what is commonly called the large intestine, which is the last part of the digestive tract. The large intestine is about 1.4 to 1.6 metres long. The colon is the part which serves to absorb water from the digested food, which enters it from the small intestine. The rectum, which is just above the anus, serves to hold what is not absorbed, which subsequently forms the faeces. From the rectum, the faeces is then expelled through the anus.
Colorectal cancer refers to cancer of the cells of the inner lining of the colon or rectum. The medically scientific term is colorectal adenocarcinoma. Most colorectal cancer begins as a small non-cancerous growth called a polyp. If undetected, such polyps can grow and mutate to transform into a cancer. If the cancer is in the colon, it is called colon cancer. If in the rectum, it is called rectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer is the number 1 cancer in Singapore. Amongst males, it is the most common cancer. Amongst females, it is the second most common, after breast cancer.
In the early stages of colorectal cancer, there is usually no symptom, or the symptoms are very mild and vague. By the time the more classical symptoms appear, the cancer may already be at an advanced stage.
Some of these “classical” symptoms are:
A change in your bowel habit – either becoming more frequent, or becoming more constipated, or irregular bowel habit
Bleeding in your stools
A sensation of inability to completely empty your bowel
Stools becoming pencil-thin in diameter
Recurrent or persistent abdominal pain or bloating
Unexplained weight loss
Weakness or feeling easily tired
Anaemia (a drop in your haemoglobin level)
The ideal test is to perform a colonoscopy. This allows the doctor to visualize the cancer, accurately locate the part of the colon or rectum where the cancer is, and obtain tissue biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.
Following the diagnosis of the cancer, the doctor may organize scans like CT scan to check if the cancer has spread. For cancer of the rectum, he may also organize a MRI or ultrasound scan of the rectum to decide if radiotherapy & chemotherapy is required.
What is the treatment of colorectal cancer?
Depending on what is the stage of the cancer, the doctor will then decide on the appropriate treatment. The ideal treatment is surgical removal of the cancer, as well as the lymph nodes around the cancer. Currently many of the operations to treat colorectal cancer can be performed by laparoscopic methods (or keyhole surgery).
Other treatment methods for colorectal cancer include chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
The type of surgery depends on the location of the cancer.
If the cancer is in the sigmoid part of the colon or the rectum, the surgery is called Anterior Resection (click to read more about this surgery). This can be done by laparoscopic method (laparoscopic anterior resection) or the traditional open method.
If the cancer is in the ascending colon, transverse colon, or descending colon, the surgery is called Colectomy (click to read more about this surgery). This can be done by laparoscopic method (laparoscopic colectomy) or the traditional open method.
Go for colorectal cancer screening when you reach the age of 50 years old. This is regardless of whether you are male or female. If you have close relatives who have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, consider screening earlier. Talk to us about this.
There are various methods to screen for colorectal cancer. Talk to us about the pros and cons of each method.
In terms of prevention, if the colonoscopy is chosen as the screening method, it has the additional benefit of preventing colorectal cancer. This is because through a colonoscopy, we can detect polyps and remove these polyps before they can turn into a cancer.
A healthy lifestyle also helps to reduce the risk of getting colorectal cancer:
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