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Colorectal Cancer


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Colorectal cancer (also called "colon/rectal" cancer) is the fourth most common cancer among men and women in the U.S. When diagnosed early, colorectal cancer usually responds well to treatment.

The term "colorectal cancer" includes cancers that develop in the colon (the long part of the large intestine) or the rectum (the last few inches of the colon before the anus). Most malignancies in the colon are a type of cancer called "adenocarcinoma."

How is it diagnosed?
How is it treated?
How does Advocate Christ Medical Center make a difference?
Frequenstly Asked Questions 
Genetic Cancer Risk Assessment Program


How is it diagnosed?

Colorectal cancer can be diagnosed in its earliest stage. It's also very treatable in this early stage. The American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institutes recommend periodic screenings for most people beginning at age 50, or earlier for people with higher risk. Screenings help doctors detect polyps (precancerous growths) and early-stage cancerous lesions. Both polyps and early-stage cancerous lesions often can be removed right during a diagnostic colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy.

Screening methods include:

  • Fecal occult blood test-which identifies trace amounts of blood in the stool. If blood is found, your doctor will probably order other tests to see if the cause is cancer or non-cancerous causes such as hemorrhoids
  • Digital rectal exam-a part of many routine physical exams, this involves the doctor feeling for any abnormal growths.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy-uses a thin, flexible, lighted tube into the rectum and lower part of the colon to look for polyps or lesions. The doctor may be able to remove polyps or lesions during the screening sigmoidoscopy.
  • Colonoscopy-the most thorough screening test, colonoscopy involves a thin, lighted tube inserted into the rectum and through the entire colon. Colonoscopy enables the physician to examine the full length of the colon. Polyps and lesions also can be removed during the colonoscopy.

Advocate Christ Medical Center has a genetic risk assessment program that offers counseling and testing for families who are at a high risk for colorectal cancer.

If colorectal cancer is found, your doctor may recommend additional diagnostic procedures to determine the cancer's stage, including whether it has spread to other organs. Advanced diagnostics include:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-a diagnostic procedure that combines radiofrequencies, very powerful magnet and a computer to create detailed images of body tissues. An endorectal MRI uses a probe placed into the rectum to provide a more accurate view of cancer within the rectum.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan-a nuclear medicine test that measures metabolic activity in cells of body tissues. Cancer cells react differently than non-cancerous cells.
  • Abdominal ultrasound-which uses soundwaves to determine if there are tumors in the liver, gallbladder or pancreas.
  • Tissue biopsy-a small sample of tissue is taken and analyzed to confirm whether it is malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous). Detailed pathology testing can reveal important details about the cancer's molecular and cellular characteristics, and is a key step in staging a cancer (determining how advanced the cancer is).

How is it treated?

As with all cancers, treatment recommendations are based on many factors, including: the type of cancer, its stage, its location, whether it has spread to surrounding organs, and the patient's personal health and preferences.

Surgery is the most common treatment for cancers of the colon or rectum. Additionally, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or biological therapy also may be considered.

If surgery is recommended, there are several options:
Laparascopy-is a minimally invasive surgery that requires three or four tiny incisions less than 1 inch each. The physician inserts a laparascope and miniaturized surgical instruments through these incisions, and can remove polyps, small tumors and affected lymph nodes. Patients generally heal more quickly from laparoscopic procedures than from more traditional open surgery.

Open surgery-requires a larger incision through the abdomen to remove the tumor and part of the colon or rectum. During surgery, the surgeon can examine the rest of the intestine, liver and other organs for signs of cancer.

Chemotherapy-uses anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells. Most chemotherapy is given intravenously, but some drugs are swallowed in pill form. Usually patients need many chemotherapy sessions over several weeks, and can be treated on an outpatient basis instead of staying in the hospital. Chemotherapy may be given before surgery to shrink a tumor, or after surgery to kill off remaining cancer cells.

Radiation Therapy-is sometimes used before surgery to shrink a tumor, or can be used after surgery to kill off remaining cancer cells. Radiation therapy can be given external or internal. External radiation therapy is delivered by a linear accelerator, and often can be done on an outpatient basis.  Patients may need therapy up to five days per week for several weeks. Three-dimensional (3-D) conformal radiation therapy and intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) are more sophisticated methods of external radiation therapy.

Internal radiation-also called brachytherapy-involves implanting tiny radioactive tubes or seeds close to the cancer site.  Brachytherapy takes a shorter time than external therapy, but most patients stay in the hospital during this therapy. Radiation therapy also may be delivered directly to the tumor during open surgery, in a process called intra-operative radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be combined, for improved effectiveness against colorectal cancer.

Biological Therapy-monoclonal antibodies are a type of biological therapy that interfere with the growth and spread of cancer cells.  Biological therapy is sometimes called immunotherapy because it takes advantage of the patient's own immune system to help fight cancer. Biological therapy is given on an outpatient basis.


How does Advocate Christ Medical Center make a difference?

The Cancer Institute at Advocate Christ Medical Center has several physicians who are leaders in applying the newest innovations in cancer care, such as endoscopic ultrasound and CyberKnife® stereotactic radiosurgery.

Our genetics program offers genetic testing and risk assessment for people concerned about a family history or colon cancer. Specialized pathology testing can identify specific genes related to colon cancer. Medical geneticists and genetic counselors can provide blood testing and counseling for family members who may be at risk for colon cancer because of genetic factors.

Patients at Advocated Christ Medical Center benefit from the collaboration of many specialists who have expertise in a broad range of areas yet all dedicated to providing the best solutions to diagnose and treat cancers of the digestive system.  Gastroenterologists, GI surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, hepatologists, oncology nurses and others work collaboratively to consider all perspectives and potentialities before recommending a treatment plan tailored to each individual's situation.

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