A guide to understanding colorectal cancer

A guide to understanding colorectal cancer
PHOTO: Pexels

In the vast landscape of health concerns, colorectal or colon cancer holds a significant spot, impacting millions of lives globally. Understanding this condition, its causes, symptoms, prevention, and screening methods is crucial for everyone.

So, let's break it down in simpler terms and get acquainted with what you need to know about colorectal cancer — a disease affecting men and women in Singapore.

What is colorectal or colon cancer?

Colon cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is a type of cancer that starts in the colon or rectum. The colon and rectum make up the large intestine, the final parts of the digestive system.

When abnormal cells in these areas begin to grow uncontrollably, they form a tumour, which can eventually become cancerous.

What causes colorectal cancer?

Understanding the factors that contribute to colon cancer is like having a roadmap to prevention. While the precise cause is often unclear, several risk factors increase the likelihood of developing this type of cancer. These include:

  • Age: Colon cancer is more common in individuals aged 50 and above.
  • Family history: A family history of colorectal cancer or certain genetic conditions can increase the risk.
  • Ethnicity: According to the Singapore Cancer Society, among the races in Singapore, the Chinese have a higher risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Polyps: Abnormal growths in the colon, known as polyps, can sometimes turn into cancer.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): Conditions like Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis may elevate the risk.
  • Unhealthy lifestyle: Factors such as a diet low in fibre, high in red or processed meats, lack of physical activity, obesity, and smoking can contribute.

Understanding these risk factors is crucial for adopting a lifestyle that minimises the chances of developing colon cancer.

Colon cancer symptoms

Recognising the symptoms early can make a significant difference in the outcome of colon cancer. Here are some common signs and symptoms:

  • Change in bowel habits: Persistent diarrhoea, constipation, or a change in stool consistency.
  • Blood in stool: This could manifest as bright red blood or darker, tarry stools.
  • Abdominal discomfort: Cramps, gas, or pain in the abdominal area that persists.
  • Unexplained weight loss: Losing weight without any apparent reason.
  • Fatigue: Feeling tired or weak consistently.

While these symptoms may not always indicate colon cancer, it's crucial to consult a healthcare professional if you experience any of them persistently.

How to prevent colon cancer?

Prevention is often more manageable than treatment, and certain lifestyle changes can significantly reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Start by adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to what you eat every day while cutting back on red and processed meats. Getting active for at least 30 minutes on most days can make a big difference too.

Since carrying too much weight can up your chances of facing colon cancer, working towards a healthy weight is key.

Also, drinking less alcohol and saying no to smoking can further lower your risk. By sticking to these habits, you're not just dodging colon cancer; you're boosting your overall health big time.

How to screen for colon cancer?

Early detection is key in successfully treating colon cancer. Various screening methods are available, and their suitability depends on factors such as age and family history.

The faecal immunochemical test (FIT), often suggested for early detection, offers a swift and easy method for screening colorectal cancer. This simple test is available in a kit and can be carried out in the comfort of your own home.

The Singapore Cancer Society distributes FIT kits, free of charge, to Singaporeans and Permanent Residents aged 50 and above.

Typically, FIT serves as the initial step, and if its outcomes indicate a concern, further testing follows. Other screening methods include:

  • Colonoscopy: A thorough examination of the entire colon using a flexible tube with a camera.
  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT): A test that checks for hidden blood in the stool.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy: Similar to a colonoscopy but focuses on the lower part of the colon.
  • CT colonography: A CT scan to examine the colon for abnormalities.

The frequency and starting age for screening depend on individual risk factors and should be discussed with a healthcare professional.

Treatment for colorectal cancer

Battling colorectal cancer might sound daunting, but there are several effective ways to tackle this challenge. Here's a quick look at some common treatments that doctors recommend.

Each method has its unique approach to fighting cancer, aiming to either remove it or control its spread.

Surgery: This is often the go-to option when the cancer hasn't spread far. Doctors might remove the cancerous part of the colon or rectum, along with some surrounding areas, to ensure all the bad cells are gone. It's a direct and effective way to deal with localised cancer.

Laparoscopy: Think of this as a less invasive surgery. Instead of making big cuts, doctors make tiny ones and use special tools to remove the cancer. It's got a cooler name — keyhole surgery — because the incisions are so small. Recovery time is usually shorter compared to traditional surgery, which is a big plus.

Chemotherapy: This treatment uses powerful medications to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. It's often used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells or before surgery to shrink tumours, making them easier to remove. Chemo can be tough, but it's a key player in the fight against colorectal cancer.

Adopting the right treatment depends on various factors, including the cancer's stage and location, as well as the patient's overall health.

Doctors usually tailor the treatment plan to suit each individual's needs, often combining different methods for the best outcome.

Colon cancer is a formidable opponent, but armed with knowledge, it is a battle that can be faced head-on.

Adopting a healthy lifestyle, recognising symptoms, and undergoing regular screenings are essential steps in preventing and detecting colon cancer early.

Remember, your health is your most valuable asset, and taking proactive measures can have a significant impact on your well-being.

ALSO READ: 'I had no lump or pain': North-East CDC's free breast cancer screenings draw 600, detect 12 abnormal cases

This article was first published in theAsianparent.

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