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Understanding Colon Cancer -- Diagnosis and Treatment

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What Are the Treatments for Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal cancer treatment involves not only specific therapies for curing or controlling the disease, but also strategies for meeting a patient's emotional and physical needs. Restoring and maintaining quality of life is a central issue for doctors, as it should be for family members and friends as well. Many complementary cancer therapies can be valuable adjuncts when pursued along with standard medical treatment to help make the stresses of cancer and its treatment more tolerable. However, complementary therapies should never replace standard care.

The main types of treatment for colorectal cancer are surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Depending on the stage of the cancer, these treatments may be combined.

Surgery is the most effective treatment for local colorectal tumors. Very small tumors can be removed through a colonoscope, but even with small tumors, removing the portion of the colon containing the tumor, the surrounding fat, and nearby lymph nodes is often the best treatment. Surgery may be performed either laparoscopically or by the open method, which uses larger incisions.

Usually, the surgeon can reconnect the healthy sections of the colon and rectum. When this is not possible, the surgeon forms an opening -- known as a stoma -- in the abdomen and reroutes the severed colon to it. Waste is collected in a bag worn over the stoma. This procedure, known as a colostomy, often is only temporary. Once the bowel has had time to heal, a second operation reconnects the colon and rectum. The need for permanent colostomy is more common with rectal cancer, since retaining the rectum may be difficult.

In the immediate period after surgery, the patient can expect to receive painkillers and other medication to ease temporary diarrhea or constipation. After surgery, patients are encouraged to eat nutritious foods, rich in calories and proteins, in order to gain strength and heal properly.

Radiation therapy is treatment with high-energy rays that destroy the cancer cells. For rectal cancer, radiation is usually given after surgery, along with chemotherapy (known as adjuvant therapy), in order to destroy any cancer cells left behind. In addition, it can be used along with chemotherapy before surgery (known as neoadjuvant therapy) in order to shrink a large tumor, making the surgery easier. In advanced rectal cancer, radiation can be used to shrink tumors that cause symptoms of bowel obstruction, bleeding, or pain.

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