When you are diagnosed with colon cancer it means that you had abnormal cells invade your colon. The abnormal cells grow into colon polyps. Not all colon polyps are cancerous. Sometimes the polyps turn cancerous and can spread to surrounding tissues.
Colon cancer symptoms are often mild and can be missed early on in the disease. This means you may not notice any symptoms until the disease has progressed into advanced stages and spread beyond the colon. This is why it is important to get screened for colon cancer at each yearly physical after the age of 50. Once the disease has spread it may be harder to treat.
Where does Colon Cancer Spread?
When cancer spreads it is known as metastasis. Metastasis happens when cancer that begins in one area spreads to other organs or tissues in the body. When cancer cells spread to other organs, it keeps the same name. So, if colon cancer spreads to the lungs it is still called colon cancer, they just add on the name "metastatic," and it becomes "metastatic colon cancer."
The different areas where colon cancer can spread are:
1. Colon Wall
When colon cancer is still at Stage 1, the polyps have grown into the colon wall. When this happens, there is a risk of the cancer spreading to nearby lymph nodes. This can help it travel to the rest of the body.
Symptoms of the cancer going into the colon wall include constipation, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, and a clear change in your bowel habits. You may experience abdominal cramps and notice that your stools are "pencil thin."
2. Lymph Nodes
In Stage 3 colon cancer, the cancer is now found in the lymph nodes outside of the colon. This can cause the cancer to spread to other organs. Treatment at this stage may be aggressive and require removal of the lymph nodes. Symptoms of spread to the lymph nodes include abdominal swelling, bloating, and appetite loss.
Once cancer reaches other organs in your body, you are considered at Stage 4 colon cancer. One of the common organs it spreads to first is your liver. There is still a possibility of treatment and chemotherapy is often given directly to the liver. Symptoms of colon cancer in the liver are profound fatigue, swelling in the extremities, yellow skin (jaundice), nausea, and swollen abdominal girth.
Where does colon cancer spread? The next place colon cancer usually travels to is the lungs. This is due to the lymph nodes near the liver are also very close to the lungs. This is also occurs in Stage 4.Symptoms of colon cancer spread to the lungs include chronic cough, pain in the chest wall, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
Late in Stage 4 colon cancer, it may go into your bones. This can increase your risk of needing a limb amputated. Treatments will be aimed at slowing the progression of the cancer and saving affected bones. Symptoms of colon cancer in your bones are bone pain, confusion, risk of fractures, high calcium levels, and constipation.
6. Spine and Brain
In very late stages of colon cancer, it may travel to your spinal cord and brain. At this point, there is still a minimal chance of a cure with aggressive treatment. However, the prognosis is often poor. Symptoms of spread to the spinal cord and brain include memory issues, headache, blurry vision, pain, seizures, and confusion.
What Increases Your Risks?
There are certain things that can increase your risk of colon cancer spreading to other organs. These include:
- DNA changes in the cancer
- Previous history of cancer
- The stage when cancer is first diagnosed
- Research is ongoing if biopsy and surgery can spread "cancer seeds" through lymph nodes
Can You Prevent the Cancer from Spreading?
Preventing colon cancer from spreading requires early detection. Colon cancer often doesn't have symptoms until the disease is advanced. It is recommended to get yearly screenings after the age of 50. If colon cancer is found in the early stages, removal of affected polyps can prevent it from spreading.
If you are found to have early stage colon cancer, treating it right away is the best prevention against spreading. When you wonder, "where does colon cancer spread?" the answer is usually into the walls of the colon from a diseased polyp. The doctor can easily remove the polyps with a simple procedure known as a, sigmoidoscopy.
Then, following through with recommended chemotherapy and/or radiation can help further prevent the spread of colon cancer.
Treatments to Help If It Spreads
If colon cancer spreads, you and your doctor will come up with an aggressive treatment plan to try and stop cancer from spreading. The treatments go by Stage and include:
Stage 1 and 2 (Confined to Colon) Treatments
If the cancer is still confined to just the colon, surgical intervention can usually prevent the spread of colon cancer.
Stage 3 (Lymph Nodes) Treatments
If the cancer begins to spread to the lymph nodes, any lymph nodes near the start of the cancer will be removed. If the cancer is found in distant lymph nodes near the liver or lungs, they will also be removed.
Stage 4 (Distant Organs) Treatments
Once colon cancer has invaded the liver, lungs, bones, and/or brain, the treatment plan will be to give both chemotherapy and radiation in cycles to kill off cancer cells. Radiation may also be given early in Stage 1 or 2 to prevent the spread.
Can Colon Cancer Recur?
Colon cancer can recur if treatments fail to prevent the spread of the disease. For some reasons, cancer cells in the body do not completely die-off. If you wanted to know, "where does colon cancer spread," the answer is it can get into your lymph nodes and resist treatment the first time around.
Some of the cells are too small for doctors to see. Smaller cancer cells can be sneaky and work their way to other organs even years later.
If the original cancer is not treated aggressively or completely, the risk of recurrent colon cancer is higher. Also, lifestyle choices such as poor diet, smoking, drinking, and street drugs can increase the risk of recurrent cancer.
Treatment for recurrent colon cancer includes repeat surgery, repeat cycles of chemotherapy, and radiation. They can also give targeted therapy and direct chemo and radiation directly to the site of cancer recurrence. These treatments can also be used to slow the progression and treat pain in terminal colon cancer.