Colon cancer strikes over 130,000 Americans every year—making it the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in the country—and more than one in three die of the disease within five years. The disease often requires aggressive treatment. If caught early it can sometimes be completely excised with relatively minor surgery. Invasive cancers require a portion of the colon to be removed, and possibly chemotherapy or radiation therapy to get rid of the remaining cancer cells.
However, because of the deadly nature of this type of cancer, the search for more effective and less invasive treatments is particularly urgent. One research team made a discovery they say could lead to customized colon cancer treatment programs tailored to what approach is expected to be most effective for each individual. They found that certain biomarkers—easily identifiable proteins that scientists can use to identify specific types of cells—can help predict the cancer’s response to medications.
Researchers are also looking for ways to prevent colon cancer, particularly in susceptible people such as African Americans and people over 50; other risk factors include inflammation of the colon, a family history of colon cancer, and diabetes. Obesity is a risk factor for diabetes as well as for colon cancer directly. Other lifestyle changes can also help prevent colon cancer, such as not smoking, drinking in moderation or not at all, and a diet low in fat and high in fiber.
Early detection is also an important factor. Colon cancer is generally detected during a colonoscopy, but this is a complicated and invasive procedure that can require most of a day, including recovery time. A new diagnostic technique has been created that can find early signs of colon cancer, and even precancerous conditions that have not yet developed into cancer, in stool samples. This can be used for routine screenings of people who have not shown any signs of cancer, but who are at risk.
Colonoscopy may still be advised as a first choice for people who have displayed symptoms of colon cancer, including changes in bathroom habits, rectal bleeding, or pain or cramping that feels like gas but doesn’t go away. However, often times colon cancer has no symptoms at all in the early stages, which is why routine screening is recommended for people over fifty, and earlier for people who are at greater risk.