Colorectal cancer: Know the 9 tests used to diagnose it
By Emily Hagan | Published on Oct 18, 2023
Cancer of the colon, or colorectal cancer, is a condition where healthy cells in the large intestine grow uncontrollably, forming a mass known as a tumor. While some tumors are benign and do not spread, others are malignant and can metastasize to other parts of the body. These changes typically develop over the years due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors, although they can occur more rapidly in individuals with uncommon inherited syndromes.
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Recognizing the Early Warning Signs
In the early stages, colorectal cancer often presents no symptoms, making it challenging to detect. When symptoms do appear, they can vary depending on the size and location of the tumor in the large intestine.
Some common warning signs include changes in bowel habits, blood in the stool, abdominal discomfort, weakness or fatigue, and unexplained weight loss. To diagnose colorectal cancer effectively, doctors consider various factors such as the type of cancer, signs and symptoms, medical and family history, age, and overall health before selecting a particular diagnostic test.
Exploring the Different Diagnostic Tests
1. Colonoscopy Test
A colonoscopy allows doctors to examine the entire rectum and colon by utilizing sedation. It is the most comprehensive test for colorectal cancer, providing important information about the tumor’s location and spread. However, a complete diagnosis may only be possible after the tumor is surgically removed.
2. Biopsy Test
A biopsy is the gold standard for definitively diagnosing colorectal cancer. During this procedure, a small amount of tissue is removed for microscopic examination. A biopsy can be performed during a colonoscopy or on tissue removed during surgery. In some cases, a CT scan or ultrasound is used to guide a needle biopsy.
3. Biomarker Testing
Biomarker testing, also known as molecular testing, examines tumor samples to identify unique genes, proteins, and other factors. These tests can help determine the most appropriate treatment options for an individual.
4. Blood Test
Colorectal cancer often causes bleeding in the large intestine or rectum, leading to anemia. Blood tests measure red blood cell count, which can indicate ongoing bleeding. The Carcinoembryonic Antigen (CEA) test, a specific blood test, detects levels of a protein called carcinoembryonic antigen. Elevated levels of this protein indicate the spread of cancer to other parts of the body. However, it is not used for screening purposes and is more useful for monitoring treatment progress.
5. Computed Tomography (CT) Scan
CT scans utilize X-rays to create images of the body from different angles. This scan helps identify abnormal tumors and measure tumor size. Prior to surgery, a CT scan is often performed to check for cancer spread to the lungs, liver, and other organs.
6. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
MRI uses magnetic fields to produce detailed images of the body. It is a valuable tool for measuring tumor size and determining the extent of colorectal cancer growth.
Ultrasound employs sound waves to examine the spread of cancer. It is commonly used to assess the depth of rectal cancer and aids in treatment planning. However, it may not accurately detect cancer that has spread beyond the pelvic area or nearby lymph nodes.
8. Chest X-ray
A chest X-ray helps determine if cancer has spread to the lungs.
9. Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
PET scans combine CT and PET scans to provide detailed information about cancer. However, they are not routinely used for all patients with colorectal cancer and are typically reserved for specific situations.
Prevention and Treatment
While colon cancer can be a serious condition, there are steps individuals can take to reduce their risk. Maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and engaging in regular exercise are all lifestyle changes that can help minimize the chances of developing colorectal cancer. Additionally, consuming a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can provide essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants that support the body’s defense against diseases, including cancer.
For individuals at increased risk, consulting with a healthcare provider about the possibility of preventive medications is advisable. Certain medications, such as aspirin, have been shown to reduce the risk of precancerous polyps or colon cancer. However, these medications are typically reserved for those with a high risk of colon cancer rather than individuals with a low to average risk.
Understanding the various diagnostic tests for colorectal cancer is crucial for early detection and effective treatment. By staying vigilant about symptoms and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, individuals can take proactive steps towards better colorectal health.