According to cancer.org, aside from skin cancer, colorectal cancer ranks as the third most commonly diagnosed cancer among men and women in the United States. Further, the American Cancer Society reports that there were over 100,000 new cases of colon cancer in 2019, which is in addition to over 44,000 new cases involving rectal cancer.
Although fighting and treating cancer itself is a huge fight, people often find themselves buried in medical bills which can leave them feeling even more hopeless.
Although no one is impervious to either of these cancers, the survival rate is reasonably good as long as they are detected early. For example, the 5-year survival rate for colon cancer is 14 percent, 67 percent for rectal cancer. It is also important to note that the survival rate cancer diagnosed at a localized stage is even higher, typically in the neighborhood of 89 percent or better.
In this article, we will take a closer at the symptoms of colon cancer and treatments that are available -- and how to cope with the financial burden of cancer.
What is Colorectal Cancer?
Also referred to as colon cancer, colorectal cancer is cancer that impacts the large intestine, otherwise known as the final part of the digestive tract. In most cases, colorectal cancer starts off as adenomatous polyps. These polyps, initially, are benign; however, over time they become cancerous cells that attack the body.
In the early stages, these polyps tend to be small and are usually asymptomatic. Therefore, those who have developed this condition may not be aware of the problem until the polyps have become cancerous and symptoms become apparent. The best way to detect polyps and any other early signs of colorectal cancer is to undergo regular screening tests, which will enable physicians to identify and remove polyps before they become cancerous.
Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer
Once polyps have morphed into cancerous cells, most people will begin to experience a variety of symptoms including
- Changes in bowel habits
- Bloody stool or rectal bleeding
- Chronic abdominal discomfort
- Feelings of fullness in bowels
- Inexplicable weight loss
What Causes Colorectal Cancer?
Similar to many other forms of cancer, the exact cause of colorectal cancer is not exactly clear; however, most physicians agree that the disease occurs whenever otherwise healthy cells develop errors in their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which is the hereditary material found in all humans and most organisms.
To further illustrate this point, healthy cells grow and bifurcate to help keep the body functioning properly. However, when the DNA in these cells become either damaged or altered, they not only become cancerous but also continue to divide and form tumors. As colorectal cancer advances, it will begin to destroy healthy nearby by tissue before metastasizing and ultimately affecting other areas of the body.
Costs Associated with Colon Cancer
The mean total colon cancer cost per Medicare patient was $29,196. The method can be applied to longitudinal data to estimate long term costs of cancer from inception where incident patients are identified from a tumor registry.
In 2014 cancer patients paid nearly $4 billion out-of-pocket for cancer treatments. Cancer also represents a significant proportion of total U.S. health care spending. Roughly $87.8 billion was spent in 2014 in the U.S. on cancer-related health care.3 These costs were paid by employers, insurance companies, and taxpayer-funded public programs like Medicare and Medicaid, as well as by cancer patients and their families.
Financial Planning for Colon Cancer
Studies show that individuals with cancer often face “financial toxicity,” manifested by a mix of severe economic stress, depression and anxiety that can worsen the underlying health condition.
Even with private health insurance or coverage through Medicare or Medicaid, families are at substantial risk of financial catastrophe. These families experience not only a major increase in daily expenses, but often a significant loss of income due to patients’ and their caregivers’ inability to maintain full-time work.
There are a number of organizations that offer pro-bono financial planning and assistance for people going through cancer treatment.
Common Risk Factors
While the exact etiology of colorectal cancer is unclear, certain things can increase the likelihood of being diagnosed with the disease including
Age – The probability of developing colorectal cancer increases significantly with age. Studies show that most newly diagnosed colorectal cancer cases are among individuals who are 50 years old and over.
Intestinal inflammation – Studies show that individuals who have been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, or any other inflammatory diseases affecting the colon are twice as likely to develop colon cancer.
Ethnicity – While anyone can be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, the disease is exceedingly common amongst African-Americans, according to the American Association for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.
Genetics – If you have a family history of rectal or colorectal cancer, your chances of being diagnosed with either disease will increase considerably.
Radiation therapy – Although radiation is an effective way to treat cancer, the treatments can also trigger the disease, especially if you have undergone previous radiation treatments that were directed at the abdomen.
Lifestyle – There are several lifestyle factors that can contribute to colorectal cancer including excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, and lack of exercise.
How To Reduce Your Risk of Developing Colorectal Cancer
According to Robert Bresalier, M.D., professor of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, consuming a low-dose aspirin (81 milligrams) every day can help lower your chances of developing colorectal cancer and other forms of cancer as well. However, taking aspirin daily can lead to gastrointestinal bleeding and even ulcers. As such, it is in your best interest to speak with your doctor before starting a daily aspirin regimen. You can also reduce your chances of developing the disease by adopting a healthier lifestyle. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
Clean eating – A diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provides you with an ample amount of the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants needed to help keep cancer at bay.
Avoid leading a sedentary lifestyle – One of the biggest contributors to colorectal cancer is obesity. The best way to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of developing the disease is by getting a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise every day.
Limit alcohol consumption – Although there are some health benefits that come with consuming alcohol, excessive drinking can increase not only your risk for colorectal cancer but also cirrhosis of the liver. Ideally, you should limit the amount of alcohol you consume to no more than one or two drinks per day.
Smoking – If you are a smoker, you now have one more reason to consider quitting as multiple studies have shown a strong correlation between smoking and an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.
When Should You See a Doctor?
When it comes to colorectal cancer, the survival rate is higher if the disease is detected early, meaning it is a good idea to schedule regular cancer screening tests with your doctor. After all, the best defense is a good offense when it comes to cancer or any disease for that matter. However, if you're experiencing any changes in bowel habits, bloody stool, or other symptoms that may suggest colorectal cancer, it is imperative that you schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. If you're already seeing your doctor for your annual physical exam, this would be a great time to talk about your colorectal health, especially if you're 50 and over. These conversations should entail ways to lower your risk of developing the disease and also scheduling regular screenings.
Types of Treatment Available
Colorectal cancer treatments can vary as there are several factors that go into outlining a treatment plan including how far the disease has progressed. Additional factors may include medications that you may already be taking, which could cause an adverse reaction when combined with those used to treat colorectal cancer. That said, some of the more common colorectal cancer treatments include:
- Targeted therapy
If you have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, it is a good idea to go over all of your treatment options with your physician so that you know what to expect as you work towards becoming cancer-free. For more information on cancer treatments and to learn more about the disease, consider visiting cancer.org.
This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author. This content has not been paid for by any advertiser nor does WhipCancer.org recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. WhipCancer.org does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and information contained on this site is intended for informational purposes only. Please seek the advice of your physician or other professional healthcare provider with any questions you may have.