10 Key Facts About Advanced Colon Cancer

Judi Ebbert, PhD, MPH, RN | Nov 28, 2017

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Late-stage colon cancer, also known as advanced or metastatic colon cancer, isn’t curable, but treatment advances have led to improved outcomes and extended survival rates. Through these new therapies, colon cancer has become a manageable chronic disease, like diabetes or heart disease. Here are 10 facts you should know about advanced colon cancer.

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Fact 1. Late-stage colon cancer means cancer cells have spread to other organs

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In advanced colon cancer, cancer cells have spread elsewhere in the body, usually to the liver and lungs and sometimes to the brain. These cancer cells travel to other parts of the body through the bloodstream and the lymphatic system.

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Fact 2. People with metastatic colon cancer are living longer than ever before

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The American Cancer Society’s surveillance research shows that deaths resulting from colon cancer have decreased in men since 1980 and in women since 1947. The decrease in deaths from 1975 to 2000 is the result of improved treatment, changed patterns in risk factors, and screening, which leads to earlier diagnoses. New therapies are emerging, so it’s important to ask your doctor about the latest treatment options for metastatic colon cancer.

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Fact 3. Colon cancer that spreads to other organs is still colon cancer

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Cancer that starts in the colon continues to look like a colon cancer cell even when it grows in another organ. That means that colon cancer cells in the liver or lung are still colon cancer cells, not liver or lung cancer cells. Colon cancer in these cases is called the primary cancer, and the organ to which the colon cancer has spread is called the secondary cancer.

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Fact 4. Metastasized colon cancer may cause no symptoms for weeks to months

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That’s why follow-up appointments with imaging are important, for detection before symptoms start. When symptoms of metastatic colon cancer emerge, they may include weight loss, poor appetite and nausea, fever, fatigue, enlarged spleen, discomfort in the upper right abdomen, jaundiced or yellowish skin and whites of the eyes, and ascites, or swelling.

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Fact 5. Targeted therapies are expanding the array of treatment options

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Immunotherapy, which helps the immune system destroy cancer cells, is being used to treat some people with metastatic colon cancer. Two drugs are approved for use in patients with high microsatellite instability (MSI-H). What’s that? A microsatellite is a portion of DNA with a very high mutation rate, which causes a higher risk for cancer. Ongoing research will likely identify more biomarkers and therapies that target them.

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Fact 6. Cancer guidelines help you know best treatment options

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The National Comprehensive Cancer Network publishes evidence-based, best-practice guidelines for cancer care. Their guidelines for patients who have colon cancer can be downloaded for free. Reading them can help you understand more about the cancer.

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Fact 7. Websites that make false promises and offer ‘miracle cures’ are frauds

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Websites that promise miracle cures might exploit you if you’ve run out of treatment options. When people no longer respond to standard-of-care therapies, they may become vulnerable to promoters of quack interventions that have no value. The Food and Drug Administration has shared red flag phrases that signal fraudulent advertising including: “Treats all forms of cancer”; “Miraculously kills cancer cells and tumors.”

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Fact 8. Reputable websites provide info that is accurate and up-to-date

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NCCN has approved the following websites as reliable, accurate resources if you have colon cancer: the American Cancer Society, Cancer Support Community, Colon Cancer Alliance, Fight Colorectal Cancer, National Cancer Institute (NCI), National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, and NCCN for Patients.

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Fact 9. You need supportive care, on or off treatment

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The National Cancer Institute defines supportive care as improving “quality of life of patients who have a serious or life-threatening disease. The goal … is to prevent or treat as early as possible the symptoms of a disease, side effects caused by treatment … and psychological, social and spiritual problems related to a disease or its treatment.” Supportive care may integrate complementary care, such as meditation and yoga, to help reduce stress.

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Fact 10. Supporting those with advanced colon cancer

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Despite good intentions, what seems positive to a healthy person may be discouraging to a person with advanced colon cancer. Sharing examples of people who beat cancer may sadden a person who has exhausted all treatment options. Offer an ear, and listen fully and actively. Food may be a poor gift because of disease symptoms or treatment side effects. Good choices are a gift certificate for housekeeping services, providing transportation, or offering to do grocery shopping.