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Colon Cancer (cont.)

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What is the follow-up care for colon cancer?

Follow-up exams are important for people with colorectal cancer. The cancer can come back near the original site, although this is unusual. If the cancer returns, it typically does so in a distant location such as the lymph nodes, liver, or lungs. Individuals diagnosed with colorectal cancer remain at risk of their cancer returning for up to 10 years after their original diagnosis and treatment, although the risk of recurrence is much higher in the first few years. Doctors in the United States follow patients with physical examinations and blood tests including the CEA tumor marker every 3 months for the first 2 years and then with decreasing frequency thereafter. Patients are also followed with colonoscopies (starting 1 year after their diagnosis) and with CT scans (typically performed once yearly for the first 2 or 3 years).

If a recurrence is noted either locally or with metastatic spread, individuals may still be treated with the intention of cure. For example, if a new tumor were to recur in the liver, individuals can be treated with a combination of chemotherapy and surgery (or sophisticated radiation techniques) in hopes of eradicating the cancer completely. Evaluation in hospitals of excellence that specialize in liver surgery can help guide these complicated treatment decisions and increase the chances of cure even in the setting of metastatic disease.

In addition to checking for cancer recurrence, patients who have had colon cancer may have an increased risk of cancer of the prostate, breast, and ovary. Therefore, follow-up examinations should include these areas as well.

What does the future hold for patients with colorectal cancer?

In 2012, there will be an estimated 50,000 deaths from colorectal cancer in the United States, and the vast majority of these deaths will be unnecessary. Colorectal cancers are typically slow-growing cancers that take years to develop. Because they grow most often in a step-wise manner, screening can greatly reduce the likelihood of death associated with the disease. Whether with virtual colonoscopy or newer screening techniques, the future must focus first and foremost on better, more comprehensive screening programs that find polyps and early cancers before they become life-threatening. The public also must be educated on the value of screening programs.

For those living with cancer, intensive investigation is ongoing to better understand cancer biology and genetics so that specific approaches can be developed to attack specific types of cancers and, more importantly, specific individuals' cancers. Each person living with cancer has a disease with a unique biology and genetic code and the secret to better treatments involves unlocking that code. Cancer is very complex and scientists are just beginning to unravel its secrets. Progress is frustratingly slow for those battling the disease. With each passing year, however, our understanding increases and treatments become more refined. If you or your family member is living with colorectal cancer, speak with your doctor about ways you can participate in research to help increase our knowledge and improve our therapies for this difficult disease.

Previous contributing author: Dennis Lee, MD.


Greene, Frederick L. et al., eds. AJCC Cancer Staging Manual. 6th ed. New York, NY: Springer, 2002.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/4/2012

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