Researchers have been studying the possible causes of colon cancer for years; in most cases, colon cancer occurs in the lower part of the intestine. Some say it is due to genetics, while others blame the typical sedentary American lifestyle and high-fat, low-fiber diet. However, they have found that the risk of colon cancer increases in families that have a history of intestinal polyps. If you are at risk for colon cancer and have shown signs of a change in appetite, weight loss, depression, or chronic diarrhea, your doctor will conduct one or more of the following common tests:

• A complete history andphysical exam. This will help your doctor discover a possible genetic link or a recent change

in your bowel habits.

• Lab tests. These may include a blood test, a liver test,

and a hemocult test, which is a simple at-home test to help you check for hidden blood in the stool, which is often the first sign of cancer.

• A digital exam. Your doctor will use a gloved finger to check

for growths in your rectum, since many cancers are within the reach of the finger.

• An anuscope. This is a device used to check the lower part of the rectum

• A sigmoidoscope. This is a small, flexible tube your doctor can use to look into the lower part of the large intestine.

• A colonoscope. This is similar to a sigmoidoscope, but it is longer to enable your doctor to examine the entire large intestine. If your doctor wants to perform a colonoscopy, you will need to be mildly sedated.

• A barium enema. This is an X-ray exam that is usually performed on an outpatient basis. A barium enema is usually used when your doctor suspects you have divetticular disease or polyps or a mechanical problem with the intestine.

• An upper GI series. This is another kind of X-ray exam in which you swallow barium on an empty stomach to allow your doctor to view your intestine more closely.

After the diagnosis of colon cancer is confirmed by some or all of these tests, along with, possibly, a CAT scan to see if the cancer has spread, the usual treatment is surgical removal of the tumor, although chemotherapy and radiation may also be used. The bowel will also need to be reattached; the procedure involves a hospitalization period of about two weeks.

Before the tumor is removed, however, your doctor will administer a blood test called the CEA antigen test, which will be used not as a screening tool but as a benchmark for future CEA tests after the tumor has been removed to check that the cancer has not reappeared.

If the tumor was located in the lower part of the intestine, close to the rectum, reattachment of the bowel may not be possible. In this case, a colostomy bag will be necessary. This does not carry the stigma that it once did, even a few years ago. People who wear a colostomy bag can lead active, productive lives without anyone else knowing they have had a colostomy, since the new appliances have no leakage and no smell.


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