What you need to know about colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer. Those are two words no one wants to hear. According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States with nearly 102,480 new cases of the disease diagnosed in 2013. Fortunately, the death rate from colorectal cancer has been dropping over for more than 20 years due to early screenings and improved treatments.

Undergoing testing to diagnose colorectal cancer may be necessary because of abnormal results from a screening exam or if there are symptoms of the disease, such as a change in bowel habits, abdominal pain, weakness, rectal bleeding or blood in the stool.

Diagnosis may begin with a complete medical history and physical examination. Endoscopic tests to check for colorectal polyps also may be necessary, including a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy (procedures used to see inside the colon and rectum), and imaging tests such as a barium enema, double contrast barium enema or virtual colonoscopy. A biopsy is done on any abnormal-looking tissues that are removed during a colonoscopy to confirm the diagnosis of colorectal cancer.

Other imaging tests may be required to determine if a suspicious area is cancerous, learn if the cancer has spread or find out if treatment has been effective. These tests include computed tomography, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography and angiography.

Once colorectal cancer had been diagnosed, treatment will be determined based on the stage and type of cancer, how far it has spread, overall health, side effects of treatment and long-term prognosis. Surgery usually is recommended for early stage colon cancer. The procedure calls for the removal of part of the colon and nearby lymph nodes. Some stage 0 or early stage 1 tumors can be taken out by removing the base of the polyp or the superficial cancer and a small margin of surrounding tissue.

Colorectal cancer also may be treated with three different types of radiation therapy, which use high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells.

  • External-beam radiation therapy focuses radiation on the cancer from outside the body;
  • Endocavitary radiation therapy delivers radiation through a hand-held device placed into the anus; and
  • Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy) involves placing small pellets of radioactive material next to or directly into the cancer.

Chemotherapy, which involves administering drugs either into a vein or orally, can be part of a colorectal cancer treatment plan as well. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy may be given along with radiation before surgery to try to shrink some rectal cancers. Adjuvant chemotherapy is given after surgery in case the cancer returns.

It is important to discuss potential side effects of treatment with your doctor. Most side effects should decrease after treatment, but steps can be taken to reduce or relieve them.

For more information about diagnosing and treating colorectal cancer, talk with your doctor or visit the American Cancer Society Web site at www.cancer.org.

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White Blood Cell Count: What You Need to Know

White blood cells, also known as leukocytes, help protect the body against infections, bacteria, viruses and diseases. These essential part of the immune system are produced in the bone marrow and are present in the blood and lymph tissue. White blood cells (WBC) come in different types, and the blood normally contains a certain percentage for each type. This is what doctors check when they request tests that measure a person’s WBC count.

Why Do Doctors Check Your WBC Count?

The WBC count is usually included in a test that measures your complete blood count (CBC). A low white blood cell count or a high blood cell count may indicate an infection or an undiagnosed condition such as a blood disorder, an autoimmune diseases or an immune deficiency. The WBC count can help doctors detect and provide treatment for these potential conditions as well as help monitor the effectiveness of radiation treatment or chemotherapy for cancer patients.

What Is the Normal WBC Count?

People’s WBC count may vary depending on their age. Infants usually have a higher WBC count which gradually decreases as they get older. The table below shows the normal WBC ranges per microliter of blood (mcL).

Age range WBC count (per mcL of blood)
Newborns 9,000 to 30,000
Children below 2 years old 6,200 to 17,000
Children over 2 years old and adults 5,000 to 10,000

Symptoms of an Abnormal WBC Count

An abnormal WBC count may either be lower or higher than the normal range. The common symptoms of a low WBC, also known as leukopenia, include body aches, chills, fever and headaches. If you have these symptoms, please schedule an appointment with your doctor and he/she may recommend a WBC count.

On the other hand, a high WBC count, also known as leukocytosis, usually doesn’t cause symptoms, although the underlying condition that’s causing it may show its own signs.

Risk Factors of an Abnormal WBC Count

A low WBC count may be triggered by the following factors or conditions:

  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Bone marrow damage or disorder
  • Certain medications (i.e., antibiotics)
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Liver and spleen diseases
  • Lupus
  • Lymphoma
  • Radiation therapy
  • Severe infections

Meanwhile, a high WBC count may be triggered by the following factors or conditions:

  • Asthma
  • Certain allergies
  • Certain infections (i.e., tuberculosis)
  • Certain medications (i.e., corticosteroids)
  • Exercise
  • Inflammatory conditions (i.e., arthritis and bowel disease)
  • Leukemia
  • Pregnancy
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Tissue damage
  • Tumors in the bone marrow

How to Prepare for a WBC Count

First, you have to schedule an appointment with your doctor to get a test request and then schedule an appointment with the laboratory for blood extraction. Certain medications may either lower or increase your WBC count, so please let your physician know if you’re under medication. Some of the drugs that may interfere with your WBC count results are as follows:

  • Antibiotics
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antihistamines
  • Chemotherapy medication
  • Clozapine
  • Corticosteroids
  • Diuretics
  • Heparin
  • Quinidine
  • Sulfonamides

Final Thoughts

If your laboratory test results show that you either have a low or high WBC count, your doctor may recommend a treatment plan and may also recheck your WBCs from time to time. But if your WBCs are within the normal range, great. Just keep doing things that can help boost your immune system and keep you healthy, such as eating fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep, limiting your sugar intake, exercising regularly, managing your stress levels and staying hydrated. Have a great day ahead!

National Cancer Institute

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