Cape Town gastroenterologist, Dr Jacques Badenhorst, urges all women to be screened if they show any of these signs of colorectal cancer…

It’s commonly thought to primarily affect the elderly and men, but younger people and women are increasingly being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer – which means cancer of the colon or rectum – is the third most common kind of cancer, and although it’s slightly more prevalent in men, it’s by no means a men’s only disease. In fact, one in every 24 women will be diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer at some point in her life.

“In addition to being one of the most common cancers overall, younger adults are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, whereas in the past it was considered a disease mainly affecting the elderly,” says Dr Jacques Badenhorst, a gastroenterologist who practises from the Christian Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town.

“However, colorectal cancer is preventable and with screening, it can be detected early.”

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Signs of colorectal cancer

Dr Badenhort says that the following are possible symptoms of colon cancer:

  • Change in bowel habits (diarrhoea, constipation, or stool consistency)
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
  • Abdominal pain, cramping, bloating or discomfort
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained anaemia (iron deficiency)

“Many of these symptoms can be caused by something other than cancer, such as a poor diet, a viral infection, haemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome, so it is important that you get to know your body well so that you can report any noticeable changes to your doctor, particularly if any of these symptoms last longer than a month,” says Dr Badenhort.

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When should you get screened for colon cancer?

Colorectal cancer is one of the most treatable cancers, but the only way to detect it is through screening, says Dr Badenhort.

“People with an average risk of colon cancer should start their screenings at age 50. Earlier screening is recommended for anyone with a family history of colon cancer, polyposis syndromes or Lynch syndrome, as well as those who suffer from conditions that affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, such as irritable bowel disease, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.”

How is screening performed?

“A colonoscopy remains the most effective method of diagnosing colon cancer,” says Dr Badenhorst. “It is a safe, comfortable, simple and widely available procedure that saves lives. A camera, or a colonscope, is inserted through the rectum and is used to examine the entire colon and rectum as well as used to take a biopsy is necessary.”

What does a colon cancer diagnosis mean?

“A colon cancer diagnosis can be terrifying and one of the first questions that patients usually ask is “what’s next?” Determining the best course of treatment is affected by what stage the cancer is in,” says Dr Badenhorst.

Cancer staging takes place after the initial diagnosis and may involve a number of tests. Each test will help your physician to determine how much of your body cancer has affected. After determining the stage, your physician will recommend a course of treatment.

Stage 0 Colon Cancer

When abnormal cells are found in the wall, or mucosa, of the colon, it is considered stage 0 colon cancer.

Treatment involves a polypectomy being performed to remove all the malignant cells. If the cells have affected a larger area, an excision may be performed, which is simply a minor, minimally invasive surgery that can often be performed during the colonoscopy.

Stage I colon cancer

Cancer which has invaded the mucosa and the submucosa is considered stage I colon cancer.

In stage I colon cancer, malignant cells may have also affected the deeper muscle layer of the colon wall, but have not invaded any areas outside of the colon.

Treatment requires surgery to remove the affected area. This is called a partial colectomy.

Stage II colon cancer

When cancer has spread past the colon wall, but has not affected the lymph nodes, it is considered stage II colon cancer.

Treatment involves surgery to remove the affected areas and usually chemotherapy. If the surgeon was not able to remove all the cancer cells, radiation may also be recommended.

Stage III colon cancer

Cancer that has spread past the lining of the colon and has affected the lymph nodes is considered stage III colon cancer.

In this stage, even though the lymph nodes are affected, the cancer has not yet affected other organs in the body.

The course of action for all categories of stage III colon cancer involves surgery to remove the affected areas, and chemotherapy.

Radiation treatment may also be recommended for patients who are not healthy enough for surgery or for patients who may still have cancer cells in their bodies after surgery has taken place.

Stage IV colon cancer

In stage IV colon cancer, the cancer has spread to other organs in the body through the blood and lymph nodes.

Patients with stage IV colon cancer may undergo surgery to remove small areas, or metastases, in the organs which have been affected. In many cases, however, the areas are too large to be removed. Chemotherapy may help to shrink the tumours so that surgery is more effective or to prolong life.

Meat-heavy diet increases colon cancer risk by 75%

With March being Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, Dr Badenhorst urges South African women to go for colorectal cancer screening if they have any symptoms worrying them, fall within any of the high-risk groups, or are over 50.

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.