Is colorectal cancer fatal? 5 facts you need to know
Over the past few decades, colorectal cancer has become Singapore’s top cancer diagnosis, It affects both genders, making up one in six cancer diagnoses for men, and one in seven for women. Those above age 50 are at highest risk. Men have a slightly higher risk, with colorectal cancer being the top cancer for men, and second only to breast cancer for women. The good news is that colorectal cancer is highly curable when caught in the early stages.
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The doctor will want to know about your medical and family history and, if you’re showing symptoms, ask about how long you’ve had them. Assessments may be done via a colonoscopy, CT, MRI or PET scans, stool tests and biopsies.
Facts to know after a colorectal cancer diagnosis
- What makes colorectal cancer spread
The colon and rectum sit in a tight space surrounded by your hip bones and close to other organs. Thus, chances of the cancer spreading to other body parts are relatively high. This usually occurs at Stage 3, although metastatic tumours may spread early on, possibly years before the condition is diagnosed.
- Early removal of colonic polyps can be easy
A colonoscopy lets your doctor identify abnormal growths with a flexible, thin tube fitted with a light and camera that is inserted through the anus. If the polyp is small, it can be excised through this procedure.
A colonoscopy helps doctors identify and remove dangerous polyps.
Image: National University Cancer Institute Singapore
- Treating colorectal cancer
Surgery is the most common treatment for colorectal cancer. The surgeon will remove the tumour and a small amount of surrounding tissue. However, if the cancer is larger, a section of your colon or rectum may need to be removed and the cut ends reattached. If the disease has spread to other organs, surgery probably won’t cure you, but it may alleviate symptoms. Together with surgery, your doctor may suggest radiation therapy. Both surgery and radiation therapy mainly targets the cancer without affecting the rest of the body. To reach cancer cells that have travelled elsewhere, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy which go through your body may be advised.
- Survival rates after a colorectal cancer diagnosis
Current survival rates are around 84% for men, and 86% for women if the cancer is discovered at stage one. However, once the cancer is at stage four, survival rates drop to 10% for men, and 11% for women. Colorectal cancer is second to lung cancer as to the cause of cancer-related death for Singaporean men, and the third after breast and lung cancer for Singaporean women, but there has been an improvement in survival rate over the years.
- Post-cancer care
Most colorectal cancer survivors can expect to live the rest of their lives in good health. However, recurring cancer is a possibility and could resurface in just a few months. This may be because the earlier treatment did not get rid of all the cancer cells, or it could be a more advanced version of the original cancer. If colorectal cancer recurs, you may experience similar symptoms like bowel changes and abdominal pain. You may also not have any symptoms at all, which is why follow-up appointments and screenings are important. To minimise your risk, try to eat a healthy diet, keep active and trim, as well as avoid smoking and alcohol.
This article has been fact-checked by Dr Denis Cheong, colorectal surgery specialist of Surgi-TEN Specialists at Farrer Park Hospital.