Recent advances in research and treatment have led to dramatically improved outcomes for cancer patients, including those with colon cancer. In fact, some colon cancer survivors have gone on to complete their normal lifespan. Does that mean that colon cancer is curable? The answer to that question depends, to some extent, on your definition of the word “cure.”
The National Cancer Institute defines “cure” as meaning there are no traces of cancer after treatment, and it will never come back. That’s a high bar to reach. Moreover, every patient is unique and treatment outcomes vary, even among patients with the same type of cancer and similar ages and backgrounds. For this reason, many health experts will tell you there is no known cure for cancer.
On the other hand, if you’ve been treated for cancer and all signs and symptoms have disappeared—a state known as complete remission—for at least five years, some physicians may say you’re cured. Viewed in this light, it may be easier to understand why the National Cancer Institute describes localized colon cancer as “often curable.”
A closer look at colon cancer
So what does “localized” mean in terms of colon cancer? It may help to briefly consider the way this disease begins and develops.
Colon cancer is a disease that typically starts with benign (harmless) clusters of cells called polyps forming inside the colon, which is the body’s large intestine. The cells that make up a colon polyp contain a gene mutation that causes them to grow faster and live longer than other colon cells. Not all polyps will become cancerous. For those that do, the process is relatively slow—usually 10 to 15 years. Over time, if left untreated, the cancer cells can spread to healthy tissues and organs, interfere with their function, and cause serious health complications.
There are a number of ways that physicians categorize the stages of development for cancer. The National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) program includes a grouping system according to three main stages:
- Localized – Cancer that has not spread, or metastasized, beyond the part of the body where it began
- Regional – Cancer that has spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes
- Distant – Cancer that has metastasized to distant lymph nodes and/or other parts of the body well beyond the original site
Localized colon cancer—i.e., cancer that has not spread outside the bowel—is highly treatable through surgery, and outcomes are generally quite favorable. However, at any stage of colon cancer, an individual’s prognosis and recovery will depend on many factors, including how well he or she responds to treatment.
The importance of colon cancer screening
The slow development of colon cancer is among the top reasons why it’s considered a highly treatable type of cancer. As with other cancers, early detection is the best path to a successful outcome. Some of the warning signs of colon cancer include:
- Persistent changes in your bowel movements, including diarrhea, constipation, or stool consistency
- The presence of blood in your stool
- Ongoing cramps, gas or stomach pain
- Unexplained weight loss
However, some people with colon cancer don’t have any symptoms in the early stages. Therefore, it’s important to get colon cancer screenings as recommended by your physician. The American Cancer Society recommends that people without symptoms or other risk factors start screening at age 45.
Moffitt Cancer Center offers the full gamut of colon cancer screening methods, including colonoscopies. If you’d like to learn more, you can reach out to the professionals at Moffitt to discuss your options. Call 1-888-663-3488 today or submit a new patient registration form online. Your cancer diagnosis is our top priority. We will connect you to a cancer expert as soon as possible.