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Colorectal Cancer: An Overview and Advances in Diagnosis and Treatment

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Colorectal cancer, which encompasses both colon and rectal cancers, is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death worldwide. The disease develops from abnormal growths, known as polyps, in the colon or rectum. Understanding its causes, identifying risk factors, early detection, and modern treatment approaches are essential to improve survival rates and quality of life for patients.

Firstly, it’s crucial to understand the risk factors associated with colorectal cancer. These include age, a personal or family history of colorectal polyps or cancer, certain genetic syndromes like familial adenomatous polyposis and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome), and conditions that cause chronic inflammation of the colon, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Lifestyle factors like a diet low in fiber and high in fat, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, smoking, alcohol use, and type 2 diabetes may also increase the risk.

The importance of early detection cannot be overstated. Regular screening for colorectal cancer, typically starting at age 50, is crucial for early detection and removal of precancerous polyps. There are several types of screening tests available, including stool-based tests, flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, and computed tomographic colonography (virtual colonoscopy). The best test is the one that gets done, so it’s vital to discuss with your healthcare provider about the best option for you.

Advancements in diagnostic techniques have greatly improved the detection of colorectal cancer. One promising area is liquid biopsy, a test done on a sample of blood to look for cancer cells or pieces of DNA from cancer cells. This non-invasive test can potentially detect cancer at an early stage and monitor disease progression.

Once diagnosed, colorectal cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy, depending on the cancer’s stage and location. Surgery is the most common treatment for all stages of colon cancer, often followed by chemotherapy if the cancer is at a later stage.

In recent years, immunotherapies, such as immune checkpoint inhibitors, and targeted therapies that block the growth and spread of cancer by interfering with specific molecules, have emerged as promising treatment options. These innovative treatments, often used when the cancer has metastasised or if it has returned after treatment, have opened up new avenues for enhancing patient survival and well-being.

Moreover, patient support and survivorship care are integral parts of cancer care. These encompass managing physical and emotional health, post-treatment care, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and routinely monitoring for cancer recurrence.

Despite the seriousness of colorectal cancer, the future is promising. Advances in our understanding of the disease, early detection, and treatment are contributing to steady improvements in survival rates. However, public awareness of colorectal cancer risk factors, the significance of early detection through regular screening, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is fundamental in the fight against this disease.

Colorectal cancer is a significant global health challenge, but with early detection and recent advances in treatment, the prognosis is continually improving. As we continue to learn more about the disease, its causes, and its mechanisms, we move closer to the ultimate goal: eradicating colorectal cancer.

Ellen Diamond, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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