People diagnosed with colon cancer have good reason to be optimistic.
In a nutshell: it is not an automatic “death sentence,” as once thought.
Advancements in the field provide a wider range of treatment options than ever before, resulting in increased survival rates and a better quality of life for the estimated 140,000 people diagnosed each year.
In fact, some patients diagnosed with even the most severe stage of colon cancer, stage IV, can achieve remission.
And while today’s oncologists and colorectal surgeons generally still utilize surgery, chemotherapy and radiation as the three standard forms of treatment, new research and innovation in each of these allow them to better fight this prevalent form of cancer, the third most common among men and women.
What's the Latest in Treatment?
The goal of surgical treatment is still to remove the tumor with a margin of healthy tissue, as well as the associated lymph nodes.
The use of robotic surgery platforms has improved precision and the ability to perform minimally invasive surgery, translating into a faster and smoother recovery.
Thanks to the effectiveness of modern chemotherapy and the subsequent chances of long-term survival, surgeons are becoming more aggressive at removing areas of metastases (the spread of cancer).
Newer, more effective chemotherapy agents are being tested and developed all the time. And regimens are being fine-tuned, as well, to have fewer side effects.
Adjuvant chemotherapy (chemotherapy after surgery) for people who are good candidates has improved overall survival. This is usually administered as a combination of one or two drugs used for several months after surgery.
Targeted cancer therapies, now at the forefront of drug research, are drugs or other substances that block the growth and spread of cancer cells, as opposed to the killing of cancer cells offered by traditional chemotherapy.
Molecular testing of cancerous tissue is used to determine whether or not a patient is a good candidate for targeted therapy. This testing, in combination with targeted therapy, has increased survival rates for patients in the advanced stages of their cancer.
Radiation treatment is used more rarely than other forms of treatment, but is warranted in select cases.
It is more commonly used in the treatment of rectal cancer.
What Determines the Treatment Used?
The first consideration is the stage of the cancer. Guidelines set forth by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) are used to initially decide the most effective course of action.
A patient with early stage colon cancer will require surgery followed by observation.
The status of lymph nodes removed during surgery often guides the need for chemotherapy after surgery.
A patient with more advanced cancer will usually be offered chemotherapy.
The treatment plan is ultimately tailored to the needs of the patient to ensure the best possible outcome, considering age, overall health, other medical history and presence of social support.
What About Quality of Life During Treatment?
Much depends on the stage of cancer, the patient’s job expectations and the effects of specific treatment regimens.
But with continual advancements in treatment and supportive care at its best ever, patients are increasingly freer to live full lives during treatment thanks to:
- Better chemotherapy regimens
- Better control of side effects
- Anti-nausea drugs
- Pain control measures
- Psychological support
What’s on the Horizon?
Immunotherapy therapy is a topic of ongoing research, especially regarding its role in the treatment of advanced colon cancer.
Genetic testing is currently offered to some patients to determine if their genetic makeup should alter recommendations for treatment. But it also offers hope for the future in helping to determine if family members may be at higher risk for colon cancer.
The American Cancer Society’s latest report on five-year survival rates also offers hope for life after colon cancer.
Prevention is Paramount
Early detection of colon cancer saves lives. It is important that people continue to undergo screening colonoscopies at age 50, or sooner if there is a family history.
For medical direction, call Shawnee Mission Health NurseLine at 913-676-7777.
Talk to your primary care doctor about colon cancer prevention. Take a quick survey to be matched with the right doctor for you.
To learn more about cancer care at SMH, visit the Shawnee Mission Cancer Care website.