Colon cancer – diagnosis and treatment

Colon cancer –
diagnosis and treatment

Colon cancer: What is it?

Cancer generally refers to malignant neoplasms caused by the degeneration of the body's own cells. Cancer cells are characterised by an altered cell structure, growing into surrounding tissue and the capacity to metastasise (metastases).

Colon cancer, i.e. cancers of the colon (colon carcinoma) and rectum (rectal carcinoma) rank among most common cancers in Europe. Cancer in other parts of the intestine is relatively rare.

Colon cancer: Development

Colon cancer normally develops from benign intestinal polyps. The degeneration of the benign intestinal polyp (adenoma) to the malignant cancer (carcinoma) is a process which can extend over approx. 5-10 years (adenoma-carcinoma sequence). The degeneration is based on many consecutive changes (mutations) to genes in the cells of the mucosal membrane of the intestinal wall. These ultimately lead to the loss of the mechanisms which curb the uncontrolled growth of the cells, allowing them to divide unhindered and spread as cancer cells. The risk increases with age and most colon cancer patients are over 50 years of age. With regard to inherited genetic changes, the cancer can also develop at a young age. If colon cancer develops frequently in a family, it is reasonable to be particularly prudent.

Other factors that change genes and could advance the development of cancer include tobacco smoke, excessive alcohol consumption, excess weight, poor nutrition and unhealthy lifestyles.

Colon cancer: Symptoms

A beginning colon cancer causes little or no medical complaints. As things continue, changes in usual bowel movements (changes between constipation and diarrhoea, changes to stool consistency, colour, smell or increased stool urgency) or blood in the stool can be the first complaints. Further warning signs are sudden loss of energy, weight loss, night sweats and fever.

Colon cancer: Diagnosis

The chances of recovery for colon cancer are better the earlier it is detected and treated. Colon cancer can be almost completed prevented or cured through regular precautionary examinations. On reaching the age of 50, these precautionary examinations are strongly recommended, even earlier in case of known colon cancer in the family.

In case of abnormal findings, a colonoscopy is performed in conjunction with the collection of a tissue sample. Only then can colon cancer be proven with certainty. Further examinations, such as computer tomography (CT), magnetic resonance tomography (MRT), ultrasound (sonography) blood tests, including tumour markers (CEA) and positron emission tomography (PET) can be used to determine the stage of the disease and the risk assessment for a surgical procedure.

Colon cancer: Therapy

In the centre for treating colon cancer, the surgical removal of the tumour is the only chance for a complete cure. If it is colon cancer (colorectal cancer), then surgery will take place as soon as possible after diagnosis. A patient can only be cured if the tumour is completely removed. In order to ensure that this is the case, the removed tumour will be assessed and further examined by a pathologist after the operation. The pathologist examines the tumour, checks both the surgical margins of the specimen and the removed lymph nodes. Depending on the result, additional chemotherapy may then be necessary.

In case of a rectal carcinoma (cancer of the rectum), the exact size and penetration depth of the tumour must first be determined after diagnosis. Whilst immediate surgical removal is recommended for smaller tumours, pre-treatment with chemo and radiation therapy (or simply radiation therapy) is carried out to reduce the size of the tumour for large tumours. This simplifies the operation and minimises the risk of the tumour recurring after the operation. Whether or not additional chemotherapy is required after the operation depends on the findings.

You can obtain more detailed information on the detection and treatment of colon cancer from our telephone info-line or by email. All contact details can be found on our Contact page.