Note: Some citations in the text of this section are followed by a level of evidence. The PDQ editorial boards use a formal ranking system to help the reader judge the strength of evidence linked to the reported results of a therapeutic strategy. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Levels of Evidence for more information.)
Incidence and Mortality
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Deaths: 49,380 (colon and rectal cancers combined).
Cancer of the colon is a highly treatable and often curable disease when localized to the bowel. Surgery is the primary form of treatment and results in cure in approximately 50% of the patients. Recurrence following surgery is a major problem and is often the ultimate cause of death.
The prognosis of patients with colon cancer is clearly related to the degree of penetration of the tumor through the bowel wall, the presence or absence of nodal involvement, and the presence or absence of distant metastases. These three characteristics form the basis for all staging systems developed for this disease. Bowel obstruction and bowel perforation are indicators of poor prognosis. Elevated pretreatment serum levels of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) have a negative prognostic significance. The American Joint Committee on Cancer and a National Cancer Institute-sponsored panel recommended that at least 12 lymph nodes be examined in patients with colon and rectal cancer to confirm the absence of nodal involvement by tumor.[4,5,6] This recommendation takes into consideration that the number of lymph nodes examined is a reflection of the aggressiveness of lymphovascular mesenteric dissection at the time of surgical resection and the pathologic identification of nodes in the specimen. Retrospective studies demonstrated that the number of lymph nodes examined in colon and rectal surgery may be associated with patient outcome.[7,8,9,10]
Many other prognostic markers have been evaluated retrospectively for patients with colon cancer, though most, including allelic loss of chromosome 18q or thymidylate synthase expression, have not been prospectively validated.[11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20] Microsatellite instability, also associated with hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC), has been associated with improved survival independent of tumor stage in a population-based series of 607 patients younger than 50 years with colorectal cancer. Treatment decisions depend on factors such as physician and patient preferences and the stage of the disease rather than the age of the patient.[22,23,24] Racial differences in overall survival after adjuvant therapy have been observed, without differences in disease-free survival, suggesting that comorbid conditions play a role in survival outcome in different patient populations.