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Overwhelmed with Information on Colorectal Cancer Treatment? Talk to Your Doctor

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Overwhelmed with Information on Colorectal Cancer Treatment? Talk to Your Doctor

Mar 23, 2016

Patients today have access to more information than ever before when it comes to our health. But with something as serious as colorectal cancer, no amount of research can replace the expertise of a physician. Dr. Courtney Scaife highlights the importance of having a specific diagnosis and how that can help narrow and better your understanding and treatment options for colorectal cancer.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Figuring out the best colorectal cancer treatment option for you. That's next on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah Physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: Dr. Courtney Scaife is a surgeon that specializes in gastrointestinal oncology and is also an expert in colorectal cancer treatments at Huntsman Cancer Institute. I was doing a little bit of research on colorectal cancer treatment options and I've got to tell you, Dr. Scaife, it's overwhelming. There are a lot of different options. I can't even imagine somebody's who has just been diagnosed that's trying to parse through all these different options on their own what they're facing. Help me make sense of that.

Dr. Scaife: There's no question that the information available on the Internet, on public institutional venues and so on is overwhelming. Doing research, investigating your diagnosis before you see your doctor is useful, but if you haven't had your diagnosis narrowed down exactly what is your diagnosis and what is your stage, that information can be very, very overwhelming. To some extent, knowledge is power, but when it becomes overwhelming, it's helpful to wait until you meet with your physicians and get your diagnosis and your staging narrowed. But that information can be whittled down into a package that's more tolerable.

Interviewer: Yeah, I think I scrolled through six, seven pages of a bunch of words that made no sense to me. After you get your diagnosis you said the two key things are your stage . . .

Dr. Scaife: Correct.

Interviewer: . . . and what's the other one?

Dr. Scaife: Your stage and your diagnosis. Colorectal cancer is a term that we group together. Colorectal cancer, it is one disease, but the distinction is the anatomy or where the tumor is located in the body. Because of the anatomy of the rectum, which is the farthest down or the lowest part of your colon, the anatomy of that is a little bit different than the colon so we treat rectal cancer, which is a sub-type of colon cancer, just a little bit differently.

The first thing we decide is does someone have rectal cancer or do they have colon cancer. Then, we decide what stage is it or what is the preliminary staging that helps us look at the treatment plan from there.

Interviewer: Help me walk through some of this process when you do have a patient in your office. They would go through some tests. You would determine the stages. You would determine the type of cancer. What do you do at that point to determine the treatment option that's best for them?

Dr. Scaife: Well, the most common scenario is that someone's had a colonoscopy. Either they had symptoms or they're in their routine surveillance, which should be everyone at the age of 50 and then every five to 10 years after that. If something was found, a concerning polyp, a precancerous high-grade dysplastic polyp is what it's called, or a cancer, then the next thing we do is stage that.

We do the staging by getting a CT scan of the chest, the abdomen and the lower abdomen that we call the pelvis. If we are sure that there is no evidence that, that cancer in the colon has tried to spread to other organs, specifically the lungs and the liver, the most common, that would make it a stage IV if it has spread to other organs. If it has not it's a stage I, II, or III.

That stage is determined by are any of the lymph nodes involved, which would be a stage III, or how thick has the tumor tried to go through the wall of the colon, which would distinguish a stage I, II or an advanced stage III. Those things we often don't know until after a surgery.

If you have rectal cancer, we do further studies to try to help to find those stages first. If you have colon cancer, surgery is the first treatment and that stage is determined at surgery. Already, you can see that the distinction between colon cancer and rectal cancer starts making those decision trees very different. Interviewer: What are some common questions that patients ask in that consultation with you after you've determined the type of cancer and the stage?

Dr. Scaife: The most common question is, "When can we get this taken care of?" Obviously, as soon as possible. We'll do everything we can to do that as soon as possible. The next most common question is, "Will I need chemotherapy?" We don't know the answer to that until after we've decided if it's rectal cancer, most commonly. We often do use chemotherapy. If it's advanced stage II or stage III colon cancer, then it will get chemotherapy after surgery, but surgery would be first.

The third most common question is, "Will I need a colostomy? Will I need a bag to poop in?" Unless it's a low rectal cancer or a really worrisome, very, very large left-sided or more distal in the colon, colon cancer, it's really uncommon to need to have a colostomy bag.

Interviewer: Are there often, after that point, different ways that you can approach the treatment that the patient might have to make the decision, "I would rather do treatment A or treatment B?"

Dr. Scaife: Yes and no. Most commonly, that comes if we have a clinical trial. An important point is that a clinical trial is only ever available if we think that the investigative arm is most likely to be a better option than the standard of care.

Some patients are very scared of trials, but we can't write a trial and IRB wouldn't approve a trial if we didn't that the trial arm is probably actually better than what is the standard of care. If a clinical trial is available, then we give patients the option do they want to be involved in the trial or not.

Otherwise, for colon cancer, really surgery is the first option. Then decisions of do they want chemotherapy after the surgery if they're a stage II or a stage III. In rectal cancer, decisions about do you want only chemotherapy before surgery. We do chemotherapy and radiation often before surgery in rectal cancer. Do they want chemotherapy only? Do they want chemotherapy and radiation before surgery? Do they want a short course of radiation or a longer course of radiation? All of those decisions are decisions that patients participate in but based on the advice of the medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and surgical oncologist.

Interviewer: What tends to be done most often, it sounds like, is surgery.

Dr. Scaife: Correct. Again, for rectal cancer, it's very common to get chemotherapy and radiation before surgery, but the treatment for either colon or rectal cancer is surgery.

Interviewer: What are some of the other considerations that a patient should keep in mind as they're going through this conversation, as they're sorting through what options they might have? What would you want them to keep in mind?

Dr. Scaife: Definitely the most important thing to do in getting ready for a treatment for colon cancer surgery and possibly chemotherapy is really to just be healthy. There's a big push across the country. The University of Utah and Huntsman Cancer Institute have a huge push right now to really emphasize pretreatment health.

Minimize or stop, ideally, your smoking. Control your diabetes really well. Control your other medical problems, your high blood pressure. Try to exercise three or four times a week at least 30 minutes those three or four days a week. Try to eat a well-rounded, healthy diet. There's no special diet that can prevent or cure rectal or colon cancer, but just a well-rounded, healthy diet really strengthens a patient to get through surgery and other treatments that are necessary.

Interviewer: That's kind of nice. Somebody could take control of those things right away before they know anything else about their cancer.

Dr. Scaife: That's exactly right. There's actually data now that shows that people that exercise before and after colon cancer surgery decrease their risk of recurrence.

Interviewer: Do people that tend to have colorectal cancer have time to get in shape before the surgery? Are we talking about they would have three or four weeks that they could stop their smoking? Is it a slow-moving cancer that they're allowed that luxury?

Dr. Scaife: Yes and no. The answer is yes, there usually are two to three weeks. It is a very slow moving cancer. Two to three weeks, five to six weeks won't make a difference in the outcome of the cancer. Sometimes even longer.

But the other side to the answer of your question is that even just two days is beneficial. For a smoker, just not smoking for two days before an operation makes a really, really big difference. For a person who's relatively sedentary to just go out for a 30-minute walk three days a week for just the two days before your operation can already make a difference.

Interviewer: It sounds like wait until you find out the type of cancer and the stage before you start freaking yourself out with all the options. Let your physician or your cancer team help narrow those down for you. It sounds like surgery is going to be kind of the first thing and then some other decisions will have to be made after that point and get out and exercise right now in preparation for any treatment that you might get. Is there anything else that you would tell a patient at this point as they're leaving your office because I imagine it's an emotional scary time for them?

Dr. Scaife: After the diagnosis has been made and you're leaving your doctor's office, as you said, this information is overwhelming from the beginning. But now that you know is it colon or rectal cancer and you know what stage it is, I, II, III or IV, now you can start to find out specific information.

Asking your doctor what questions to ask, where to get the information. One of the most valuable resources is the Cancer Learning Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute. It's one of the biggest, I think it is the biggest, patient cancer centered library in the country. They have librarians trained to teach people how to get the resources in their diagnosis, in their family situation and in their social network and their questions that they have. The librarians can help them get educational materials appropriate for their diagnosis.

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