Colon Cancer: Survival Rates, Causes, Treatment and Prevention

Colon cancer is a cancer of the large intestine, or colon, which is the final part of the digestive tract. Colon cancer is often referred to (together with rectal cancer) as colorectal cancer.

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How long does a person live after being diagnosed with colon cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year relative survival rate for colon cancer is as follows:1

SEER stage

5-year relative survival rate

Localized

90%

Regional

71%

Distant

14%

All SEER stages combined

64%

What is the SEER stage?

SEER stands for Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results. It was developed by the National Cancer Institute, and it is the database relied upon by the American Cancer Society as a source of information on the incidence and survival rates of various types of cancer in the United States.

SEER stages refer to the level or phase to which a cancer has progressed.

  1. The localized stage is when the cancer remains confined to the original location without any extension beyond that primary organ.

  2. A regional stage is when the cancer has reached adjacent organs or lymph nodes.

  3. Distant describes a stage at which the cancer has spread to other parts of the body not near the original source.

As you can see from the chart above, the 5-year survival rate decreases dramatically once colon cancer advances to the distant stage.

What is the 5-year relative survival rate?

A relative survival rate compares the survival rate of people with the same type and stage of colon cancer to people in the overall population of the U.S.

This means that people with colon cancer in a regional stage are about 71 percent as likely to live for the next five years as people who do not have colon cancer, according to the chart above.

How does the colon cancer survival rate compare to other cancers?

Colon cancer ranks as the second most deadly of the five most common types of cancer.

According to statistics from the National Cancer Institute, 88.1 percent of Americans diagnosed with stage one colon cancer survive at least five years after diagnosis.2

Here’s how colon cancer’s 5-year survival rate compares with the other four most common types of cancer:

Cancer type

5-year relative survival rate from 2007 – 2013

Breast

100%

Prostate

100%

Melanoma

99.5%

Colorectal

88.1%

Lung and bronchus

55.1%

How treatable is colon cancer?

Treatment for colon cancer is based largely on the stage in which the cancer has progressed.

  • Localized stages of colorectal cancer are typically treated with surgery to remove the cancerous polyp or portion of the colon containing the cancer.

  • Colon cancer in a regional stage may be treated with surgery to remove the areas affected by the cancer, followed by post-operation chemotherapy.

  • Surgery to remove infected parts of the body is unlikely to cure colon cancer in a distant stage, but it may help extend the life of a patient. Chemotherapy typically follows.

Additional treatment options for distant stage colon cancer can include:

  • Hepatic artery infusion (HAI), in which a device is implanted that delivers chemotherapy straight to an infected liver, in cases where colorectal cancer has metastasized to the liver.  

  • Ablation, which uses heat or other forms of energy to destroy cancer cells while preserving the surrounding healthy tissue.

  • Embolization, which is a technique used to starve cancerous tumors and cancer cells by restricting blood flow to the infected area.

  • Immunotherapy drugs that help the immune system better recognize and destroy cancerous cells.

  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells.

What are the causes and risk factors for colorectal cancer?

Most cases of colon cancer begin as a small clump of cells known as a polyp, which over time can become cancerous when they develop errors in their DNA.

Inherited gene mutations can cause colon cancer, but only in about five to ten percent of cases.3

Studies of the Western diet, which is high in fat and low in fiber, have shown an association with increased risks of colon cancer.4

Additional risk factors for colon cancer include:

  • Being over the age of 50
  • Being African American
  • A previous history of colon cancer or polyps or a family history of colon cancer
  • Inflammatory intestinal conditions
  • Certain inherited syndromes
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Heavy use of alcohol
  • Radiation therapy for other types of cancer

How can you help prevent colon cancer?

Certain things you can do to reduce your risk of developing colon cancer include:

  • Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Limit your consumption of alcohol
  • Refrain from smoking
  • Regularly exercise and maintain a healthy weight

Does Medicare cover colon cancer?

Medicare Part B covers screening colonoscopies once every 24 months for people determined to be at a high risk for colon cancer, and once every 120 months for those not deemed to be at high risk.

Chemotherapy and surgery are typically covered by Medicare Part A when performed in an inpatient setting, and by Part B when done as an outpatient.

Prescription medication used for the treatment of colon cancer may be covered by a Medicare Part D or Medicare Advantage plan.

Many Medicare Advantage plans also cover fitness club memberships and other benefits that can help you live a healthy lifestyle, which in turn can help you lower your risk of colon cancer.

Find a Medicare Advantage plan that supports your healthy lifestyle

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This article is for informational purposes only. It is not healthcare advice. Speak to your doctor or healthcare provider about your specific healthcare needs.

1 American Cancer Society. Survival Rates for Colorectal Cancer. (Updated Feb. 1, 2019). Retrieved from www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-rates.html.

2 National Cancer Institute. Annual Report to the Nation 2018: Most Common Cancers Infographic. (May 22, 2018). Retrieved from seer.cancer.gov/report_to_nation/infographics/stats-common3.html.

3 Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Inherited Risk for Colorectal Cancer. Retrieved Mar. 12, 2019 from www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/risk-assessment-screening/hereditary-genetics/genetic-counseling/inherited-risk-colorectal..

4 A. Moss, K. Nalankilli. The Association Between Diet and Colorectal Cancer Risk: Moving Beyond generalizations. (April 28, 2017). Gastroenterology, 152(8), 1803-2084. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2017.04.025.

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