Dr. Haider Zafar is board-certified in both Oncology and Hematology at Banner Estrella Medical Center. He is chairman of the hospital's Cancer Committee.
Question: I hear many people talking about colon cancer on television. Are there new ways to treat it and how do I know if I have it?
Answer: Cancer of the colon or rectum, also called colorectal cancer, is the fourth most common cancer in men and women in the United States and one of the most treatable, which is why it has lately been given a lot of attention in the media and by physicians and researchers. When diagnosed early, 90 percent of colon cancers are completely curable but often, people attribute the symptoms of colon cancer to other factors and do not seek treatment in time.
Question: What are the symptoms?
Answer: Symptoms vary depending on the location of the cancer and the stage (level) of cancer, but typical symptoms include unexplained weight loss, a change in bowel movements, belly pain, tar-black stool or blood in the stool, which is never normal and should always be followed by a physician visit.
Question: What steps should I take?
Answer: If you don’t have any of these symptoms, if you are under the age of 50, and if you have no family history of colon cancer, chances are screening before the age of 50 will not be necessary. However, if you have a first degree family member who had colon cancer at a young age (under 50), it is best to begin screening at about 10 years before the age they were diagnosed as the disease does have hereditary traits.
Patients diagnosed with colon cancer today have multiple options in how they treat the disease, dependent on the seriousness of the case. Colon cancer patients usually undergo surgery to remove the tumor. This “resection” surgery entails making an incision in the abdomen, removing the tumor and then reconnecting the healthy colon. Previously stage 1 and 2 colon cancer patients had surgery as their only treatment option with no further benefit from medicines given after surgery to prevent recurrence.
Today, research has resulted in an abundance of drugs that, individually or working together, can treat early stages of colon cancer after surgery and reduce the recurrence significantly. Chemotherapy drugs such as Camptosar or Oxaliplatin work in colon cancer Stages 2 to 4 and these drugs, with the addition of biological agents (Avastin or Erbitux to name a few) can help cancer patients tremendously with the advanced Stage 4 cancer and add years to their lives.
The most important thing, if you have a family history of colon cancer or are over the age of 50, is to get screened yearly.