Many people with colorectal cancer want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. It is natural to want to learn all you can about your disease and treatment choices. However, shock and stress after the diagnosis can make it hard to think of everything you want to ask your doctor. It often helps to make a list of questions before an appointment.
To help remember what your doctor says, you may take notes or ask whether you may use a tape recorder. You may also want to have a family member or friend with you when you talk to your doctor -- to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.
You do not need to ask all your questions at once. You will have other chances to ask your doctor or nurse to explain things that are not clear and to ask for more details.
Your doctor may refer you to a specialist who has experience treating colorectal cancer, or you may ask for a referral. Specialists who treat colorectal cancer include gastroenterologists (doctors who specialize in diseases of the digestive system), surgeons, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. You may have a team of doctors.
Getting a Second Opinion
Before starting treatment, you might want a second opinion about your diagnosis and treatment plan. Many insurance companies cover a second opinion if you or your doctor requests it.
It may take some time and effort to gather medical records and arrange to see another doctor. Usually it is not a problem to take several weeks to get a second opinion. In most cases, the delay in starting treatment will not make treatment less effective. To make sure, you should discuss this delay with your doctor. Sometimes people with colorectal cancer need treatment right away.
There are a number of ways to find a doctor for a second opinion:
- Your doctor may refer you to one or more specialists.
- A local or state medical society, a nearby hospital, or a medical school can usually provide the names of specialists.
The choice of treatment depends mainly on the location of the tumor in the colon or rectum and the stage of the disease. Treatment for colorectal cancer may involve surgery, chemotherapy, biological therapy or radiation therapy. Some people have a combination of treatments. These treatments are described below.
Colon cancer sometimes is treated differently from rectal cancer. Treatments for colon and rectal cancer are described separately below.
Your doctor can describe your treatment choices and the expected results. You and your doctor can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your needs.
Cancer treatment is either local therapy or systemic therapy:
- Local therapy: Surgery and radiation therapy are local therapies. They remove or destroy cancer in or near the colon or rectum. When colorectal cancer has spread to other parts of the body, local therapy may be used to control the disease in those specific areas.
- Systemic therapy: Chemotherapy and biological therapy are systemic therapies. The drugs enter the bloodstream and destroy or control cancer throughout the body.
Because cancer treatments often damage healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. Side effects depend mainly on the type and extent of the treatment. Side effects may not be the same for each person, and they may change from one treatment session to the next. Before treatment starts, your health care team will explain possible side effects and suggest ways to help you manage them.
At any stage of disease, supportive care is available to relieve the side effects of treatment, to control pain and other symptoms, and to ease emotional concerns.
You may want to talk to your doctor about taking part in a clinical trial, a research study of new treatment methods.
You may want to ask your doctor these questions before treatment begins:
- What is the stage of the disease? Has the cancer spread?
- What are my treatment choices? Which do you suggest for me? Will I have more than one kind of treatment?
- What are the expected benefits of each kind of treatment?
- What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment? How can the side effects be managed?
- What can I do to prepare for treatment?
- How will treatment affect my normal activities? Am I likely to have urinary problems? What about bowel problems, such as diarrhea or rectal bleeding? Will treatment affect my sex life?
- What will the treatment cost? Is this treatment covered by my insurance plan?
Surgery is the most common treatment for colorectal cancer.
- Colonoscopy: A small malignant polyp may be removed from your colon or upper rectum with a colonoscope. Some small tumors in the lower rectum can be removed through your anus without a colonoscope.
- Laparoscopy: Early colon cancer may be removed with the aid of a thin, lighted tube (laparoscope). Three or four tiny cuts are made into your abdomen. The surgeon sees inside your abdomen with the laparoscope. The tumor and part of the healthy colon are removed. Nearby lymph nodes also may be removed. The surgeon checks the rest of your intestine and your liver to see if the cancer has spread.
- Open surgery: The surgeon makes a large cut into your abdomen to remove the tumor and part of the healthy colon or rectum. Some nearby lymph nodes are also removed. The surgeon checks the rest of your intestine and your liver to see if the cancer has spread.
When a section of your colon or rectum is removed, the surgeon can usually reconnect the healthy parts. However, sometimes reconnection is not possible. In this case, the surgeon creates a new path for waste to leave your body. The surgeon makes an opening (stoma) in the wall of the abdomen, connects the upper end of the intestine to the stoma, and closes the other end. The operation to create the stoma is called a colostomy. A flat bag fits over the stoma to collect waste, and a special adhesive holds it in place.
For most people, the stoma is temporary. It is needed only until the colon or rectum heals from surgery. After healing takes place, the surgeon reconnects the parts of the intestine and closes the stoma. Some people, especially those with a tumor in the lower rectum, need a permanent stoma.
People who have a colostomy may have irritation of the skin around the stoma. Your doctor, your nurse, or an enterostomal therapist can teach you how to clean the area and prevent irritation and infection.
The time it takes to heal after surgery is different for each person. You may be uncomfortable for the first few days. Medicine can help control your pain. Before surgery, you should discuss the plan for pain relief with your doctor or nurse. After surgery, your doctor can adjust the plan if you need more pain relief.
It is common to feel tired or weak for a while. Also, surgery sometimes causes constipation or diarrhea. Your health care team monitors you for signs of bleeding, infection, or other problems requiring immediate treatment.
You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having surgery:
- What kind of operation do you recommend for me?
- Do I need any lymph nodes removed? Will other tissues be removed? Why?
- What are the risks of surgery? Will I have any lasting side effects?
- Will I need a colostomy? If so, will the stoma be permanent?
- How will I feel after the operation?
- If I have pain, how will it be controlled?
- How long will I be in the hospital?
- When can I get back to my normal activities?
Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and can affect cancer cells all over the body.
Anticancer drugs are usually given through a vein, but some may be given by mouth. You may be treated in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. Rarely, a hospital stay may be needed.
The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the specific drugs and the dose. The drugs can harm normal cells that divide rapidly:
- Blood cells: These cells fight infection, help blood to clot, and carry oxygen to all parts of your body. When drugs affect your blood cells, you are more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel very weak and tired.
- Cells in hair roots: Chemotherapy can cause hair loss. Your hair will grow back, but it may be somewhat different in color and texture.
- Cells that line the digestive tract: Chemotherapy can cause poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores.
Chemotherapy for colorectal cancer can cause the skin on the palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet to become red and painful. The skin may peel off.
Your health care team can suggest ways to control many of these side effects. Most side effects usually go away after treatment ends.
You may want to ask the doctor these questions before having chemotherapy:
- Why do I need this treatment?
- Which drug or drugs will I have?
- How do the drugs work?
- What are the expected benefits of the treatment?
- What are the risks and possible side effects of treatment? What can we do about them?
- When will treatment start? When will it end?
- How will treatment affect my normal activities?
Some people with colorectal cancer that has spread receive a monoclonal antibody, a type of biological therapy. The monoclonal antibodies bind to colorectal cancer cells. They interfere with cancer cell growth and the spread of cancer. People receive monoclonal antibodies through a vein at the doctor's office, hospital, or clinic. Some people receive chemotherapy at the same time.
During treatment, your health care team will watch for signs of problems. Some people get medicine to prevent a possible allergic reaction. The side effects depend mainly on the monoclonal antibody used. Side effects may include rash, fever, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, blood pressure changes, bleeding, or breathing problems. Side effects usually become milder after the first treatment.
You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having chemotherapy or biological therapy:
- What drugs will I have? What will they do?
- When will treatment start? When will it end? How often will I have treatments?
- Where will I go for treatment? Will I be able to drive home afterward?
- What can I do to take care of myself during treatment?
- How will we know the treatment is working?
- Which side effects should I tell you about?
- Will there be long-term effects?
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It affects cancer cells only in the treated area.
Doctors use different types of radiation therapy to treat cancer. Sometimes people receive two types:
- External radiation: The radiation comes from a machine. The most common type of machine used for radiation therapy is called a linear accelerator. Most patients go to the hospital or clinic for their treatment, generally 5 days a week for several weeks.
- Internal radiation (implant radiation or brachytherapy): The radiation comes from radioactive material placed in thin tubes put directly into or near the tumor. The patient stays in the hospital, and the implants generally remain in place for several days. Usually they are removed before the patient goes home.
- Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT): In some cases, radiation is given during surgery.
Side effects depend mainly on the amount of radiation given and the part of your body that is treated. Radiation therapy to your abdomen and pelvis may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools, or urgent bowel movements. It also may cause urinary problems, such as being unable to stop the flow of urine from the bladder. In addition, your skin in the treated area may become red, dry, and tender. The skin near the anus is especially sensitive.
You are likely to become very tired during radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of treatment. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can.
Although the side effects of radiation therapy can be distressing, your doctor can usually treat or control them. Also, side effects usually go away after treatment ends.
You may want to ask your doctor these questions about radiation therapy:
- Why do I need this treatment?
- When will the treatments begin? When will they end?
- How will I feel during treatment?
- How will we know if the radiation treatment is working?
- What can I do to take care of myself during treatment?
- Can I continue my normal activities?
- Are there any lasting effects?
Treatment for Colon Cancer
Most patients with colon cancer are treated with surgery. Some people have both surgery and chemotherapy. Some with advanced disease get biological therapy.
A colostomy is seldom needed for people with colon cancer.
Although radiation therapy is rarely used to treat colon cancer, sometimes it is used to relieve pain and other symptoms.
Treatment for Rectal Cancer
For all stages of rectal cancer, surgery is the most common treatment. Some patients receive surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Some with advanced disease get biological therapy.
About 1 out of 8 people with rectal cancer needs a permanent colostomy.
Radiation therapy may be used before and after surgery. Some people have radiation therapy before surgery to shrink the tumor, and some have it after surgery to kill cancer cells that may remain in the area. At some hospitals, patients may have radiation therapy during surgery. People also may have radiation therapy to relieve pain and other problems caused by the cancer.
No one knows the exact causes of colorectal cancer. Doctors often cannot explain why one person develops this disease and another does not. However, it is clear that colorectal cancer is not contagious. No one can catch this disease from another person.
Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop colorectal cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of developing a disease.
Studies have found the following risk factors for colorectal cancer:
- Age over 50: Colorectal cancer is more likely to occur as people get older. More than 90 percent of people with this disease are diagnosed after age 50. The average age at diagnosis is 72.
- Colorectal polyps: Polyps are growths on the inner wall of the colon or rectum. They are common in people over age 50. Most polyps are benign (not cancer), but some polyps (adenomas) can become cancer. Finding and removing polyps may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
- Family history of colorectal cancer: Close relatives (parents, brothers, sisters, or children) of a person with a history of colorectal cancer are somewhat more likely to develop this disease themselves, especially if the relative had the cancer at a young age. If many close relatives have a history of colorectal cancer, the risk is even greater.
- Genetic alterations: Changes in certain genes increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC) is the most common type of inherited (genetic) colorectal cancer. It accounts for about 2 percent of all colorectal cancer cases. It is caused by changes in an HNPCC gene. Most people with an altered HNPCC gene develop colon cancer, and the average age at diagnosis of colon cancer is 44.
- Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) is a rare, inherited condition in which hundreds of polyps form in the colon and rectum. It is caused by a change in a specific gene called APC. Unless FAP is treated, it usually leads to colorectal cancer by age 40. FAP accounts for less than 1 percent of all colorectal cancer cases.
Family members of people who have HNPCC or FAP can have genetic testing to check for specific genetic changes. For those who have changes in their genes, health care providers may suggest ways to try to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, or to improve the detection of this disease. For adults with FAP, the doctor may recommend an operation to remove all or part of the colon and rectum.
- Personal history of cancer: A person who has already had colorectal cancer may develop colorectal cancer a second time. Also, women with a history of cancer of the ovary, uterus (endometrium), or breast are at a somewhat higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.
- Ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease: A person who has had a condition that causes inflammation of the colon (such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease) for many years is at increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.
- Diet: Studies suggest that diets high in fat (especially animal fat) and low in calcium, folate, and fiber may increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Also, some studies suggest that people who eat a diet very low in fruits and vegetables may have a higher risk of colorectal cancer. However, results from diet studies do not always agree, and more research is needed to better understand how diet affects the risk of colorectal cancer.
- Cigarette smoking: A person who smokes cigarettes may be at increased risk of developing polyps and colorectal cancer.
Because people who have colorectal cancer may develop colorectal cancer a second time, it is important to have checkups. If you have colorectal cancer, you also may be concerned that your family members may develop the disease. People who think they may be at risk should talk to their doctor. The doctor may be able to suggest ways to reduce the risk and can plan an appropriate schedule for checkups.