Colon Cancer (Colorectal Cancer)

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Quick GuideColon Cancer: Symptoms, Signs, Screening, Stages

Colon Cancer: Symptoms, Signs, Screening, Stages

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. Medical providers in the United States follow patients with physical examinations and blood tests including the CEA (if it was elevated before surgery) tumor marker every three months for the first two years and then with decreasing frequency thereafter. Patients are also followed with colonoscopies (starting one year after their diagnosis) and with CT scans (typically performed at least once yearly for the first two to five 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 in the clinic should include screening for these disease, as well.

What is the prognosis for patients with colorectal cancer?

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 research 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 through clinical trials to help increase our knowledge and improve our therapies for this difficult disease.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/3/2017

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