In the earliest stages of colorectal cancer (stage 0 and some stage I cases) polyps can be removed during a colonoscopy in a procedure called polypectomy. Early-stage superficial cancers that are not deep can also be removed through excision, where the cancer is cut out by inserting a tube into the rectum. Unlike colectomy, these procedures do not involve cutting through the abdominal wall.
Surgical removal of the tumor ("resection") along with any affected surrounding tissue is the standard initial treatment for potentially curable colorectal cancers (cancers that have not spread beyond the colon or lymph nodes). Drug and radiation therapy are often used for advanced cancers and are continuously being tested with surgery in different combinations and sequences.
Although choosing a qualified surgeon is critical, choosing a hospital experienced in procedures is also important. The more often colon cancer surgery is performed at a given hospital, the lower the mortality rate at that hospital is likely to be.
Unless cancer is very advanced, most tumors are removed by an operation known as colectomy:
The Surgical Approach. The standard technique for a colectomy is open, invasive surgery. Laparoscopy, sometimes called “keyhole surgery,” is a newer less invasive method.
A colostomy is performed in order to bypass or remove the lower colon and rectum. The procedure generally involves creating a passage, called a stoma, through the abdominal wall that is connected to the colon. The feces pass through this passage and are eliminated. Patients must learn how to care for the stoma and keep the area sanitary.
A colostomy usually will have one opening (single-barreled), or there may be two loops opening through the skin (double-barreled).
Usually the colostomy is temporary and can be reversed by a second operation after about 3 - 6 months. If the rectum and sphincter muscles in the rectum need to be removed, the colostomy is permanent. Permanent colostomies are more common when the cancerous regions are within 2 - 3 centimeters of the anus. Fortunately, surgical advances and knowledge of the extent of safe margins are reducing the need for permanent colostomies.
Managing Permanent Colostomies. In cases where the colostomy is permanent, the patient must wear a colostomy pouch, which sticks to the skin using a special glue.
For best results, the pouch should be emptied when about one-third full. It should be replaced 1 - 2 times a week, depending on signs of leakage (itching or burning of the skin near the stoma). The pouches are odor proof.
Surgical treatments for cancer in the rectum are complex since they involve muscles and tissue that are critical for urinary and sexual function.
Local Excision or Polypectomy for Early Stages. In order to preserve the function of the anal sphincter and prevent the need for colostomy, Stage I and Stage II tumors may be removed by local excision, sometimes followed by chemotherapy and radiation. In this procedure, the tumor is cut out without removal of a major section of rectum. In some cases cancer recurs, but a second operation may be possible.
Radical Resection. In about a third of cases of rectal cancer, the cancer occurs in the lower part of the rectum, where 70 - 80% of cancers have spread beyond the rectal wall. These patients need a radical resection, in which surrounding structures, including the sphincter muscles that control bowel movements, must often be removed.
Total Mesorectal Excision. Total mesorectal excision (TME) involves dissection and removal of the entire cancerous area of the rectum along with surrounding fatty regions where the lymph nodes are located (the mesorectum). When successful, TME preserves the sphincter muscle, reducing the need for a permanent colostomy.
Side effects of colon surgery include:
There are no dietary restrictions, although many patients avoid foods that can produce gas. Everyone should drink plenty of fluids and get sufficient fiber.
The potential side effects of sexual and bowel dysfunction for patients who have had colorectal surgery can be very difficult, although many patients do very well and live normal productive lives. Patients who are depressed should discuss with a doctor all aspects of treatment that affect the quality of life, and consider seeking support groups.
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