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  • Understanding Stage 3 Colon Cancer: Treatment Options and Prognosis

As one faces the complex journey of navigating stage 3 colon cancer, understanding the various symptoms, diagnosis methods, and treatment options can be invaluable in improving prognosis and quality of life. This comprehensive guide aims to provide a deeper understanding of this challenging condition, empowering patients and their loved ones to make informed decisions about their care.

Key Takeaways

  • Stage 3 Colon Cancer is a serious condition with common and rare symptoms.

  • Diagnosis requires lab tests, imaging studies, colonoscopy and biopsy to accurately determine the extent of cancer for an effective treatment plan.

  • Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy. Prognosis can be improved through early detection and tailored treatments plans.

Recognizing Stage 3 Colon Cancer Symptoms

Illustration of cancer cells in the colon

Stage 3 colon cancer symptoms can vary depending on the tumor size and location. Being aware of these symptoms can help patients and physicians identify the disease in its early stages, increasing the chances of successful treatment.

The following will detail both common and rare symptoms of stage 3 colon cancer.

Common Symptoms

Typical symptoms of stage 3 colon cancer include changes in bowel habits, bleeding, and abdominal pain. Patients may experience more frequent diarrhea or constipation, rectal bleeding, and a shift in the form or magnitude of the stool. Persistent and crampy abdominal pain is also a common symptom, which may prompt doctors to diagnose colon cancer.

Noticing overlooked symptoms is important, such as:

  • blood in the stool

  • weight loss

  • prolonged and unexplained bouts of diarrhea

  • stomachaches

  • spots of blood during bowel movements

These symptoms should not be ignored, as they may indicate the presence of colon cancer cells. If these symptoms persist, timely diagnosis and treatment can be achieved by seeking medical attention.

Rare Symptoms

Certain rare symptoms may be specific to particular types of colon cancer, such as signet ring carcinoma and primary melanoma. These symptoms could indicate rapid progression from stage 3 to stage 4 if not detected in the early stages. Distinguishing symptoms of signet ring carcinoma of the colon include:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Rectal bleeding

  • Alterations in bowel habits

  • Weight loss

Being aware of the specific symptoms of signet ring carcinoma of the colon is important, as well as the rarer indications of progression from stage 3 to stage 4 colon cancer. Promptly seeking medical help and being observant about these symptoms can enhance patients’ chances of successful treatment and a better prognosis.

Diagnosing Stage 3 Colon Cancer

Illustration of colonoscopy procedure

Diagnosing stage 3 colon cancer is a multi-step process that includes:

  1. Lab tests

  2. Imaging studies

  3. Colonoscopy

  4. Biopsy

These steps are necessary to determine the extent of the cancer and whether the cancer has spread. Early and accurate diagnosis is crucial in developing an effective treatment plan and improving patient outcomes.

The following content will detail various diagnostic tools and methods used for stage 3 colon cancer.

Lab Tests

Laboratory tests, such as stool tests and blood tests, can assist in screening for colon cancer. Fecal occult blood tests have been demonstrated to be efficacious in detecting colon cancer and are recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for screening. CellMax liquid biopsy, a newer blood-based test, is currently being investigated for detecting potential signs of colon cancer. It does so by analysing the patient’s blood samples..

However, if a patient presents with suspicious, more specific symptoms, such as visible blood in their stool or evidence of bleeding on a rectal exam, screening stool tests may not be used for colon cancer. In these cases, further diagnostic tests, as discussed in the following subsections, are required to accurately diagnose colon cancer.

Imaging Studies

Imaging studies are integral to the diagnosis of stage 3 colon cancer. They evaluate regions in the body that may indicate the presence of cancer and determine whether the cancer has metastasized and to what degree. The following imaging techniques are typically utilized in diagnosing stage 3 colon cancer:

  • Radiography

  • CT (including virtual CT colonoscopy)

  • MRI

  • Transrectal ultrasound

  • Positron emission tomography (PET)

These imaging studies help healthcare professionals accurately diagnose and stage the cancer, which is crucial for determining the most appropriate treatment plan.

For instance, rectal MRI plays a key role in the local staging of patients with rectal cancer. Imaging studies such as CT scans, MRI, and PET scans are utilized to ascertain the spread of colon cancer, providing vital information on the size of the tumor, whether the cancer has metastasized to adjacent lymph nodes or other organs, and informing treatment choices.


A colonoscopy is a direct and non-invasive method for diagnosing colon cancer. It involves utilizing a flexible scope with a special, lighted camera that allows the physician to examine the entire colon and rectum for any abnormalities. A diagnostic colonoscopy is typically performed on a patient who has experienced gastrointestinal symptoms, such as rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, or diarrhea.

Prior to a colonoscopy, patients must adhere to a specific diet and cleanse the bowels with a laxative formula. The procedure itself typically takes between 30 to 60 minutes, excluding preparation and anesthesia recovery time. If any suspicious growths or polyps are found during the colonoscopy, a biopsy may be performed to determine if cancer cells are present.


Biopsy is considered the gold standard for diagnosing colon cancer. During a colonoscopy, the colonoscope’s tube is used to insert special instruments. These instruments are used to pinch, cut or use an electrical current to extract pieces of tissue for a biopsy. A doctor referred to as a pathologist is responsible for examining the tissue obtained during a biopsy.

The pathologist takes a close look at the tissue under a microscope. This allows them to determine if cancer cells are present and what type of cancer it is. In some cases, a biopsy may be executed during surgery to extract tissue. This provides essential information about the cancer, allowing physicians to develop a tailored treatment plan for the patient.

Staging and Grading of Colon Cancer

Illustration of cancer staging process

Staging and grading processes assess the severity and scope of colon cancer, guiding treatment plans and predicting patient outcomes. The following will detail the TNM Classification system for cancer staging and the grading process based on cell differentiation and growth rate.

Cancer Staging

The TNM Classification system is widely utilized to classify cancer based on three factors: tumor size (T), lymph node involvement (N), and metastasis (M). This system is employed to evaluate the extent of the cancer and guide treatment decisions. In the case of stage 3 colon cancer, the TNM Classification system categorizes the cancer based on the size of the tumor, the involvement of lymph nodes, and the absence of distant metastasis.

Stage III colon cancer is further divided into three substages—stage 3A, 3B, and 3C—with each successive letter denoting a progression of the disease. Determining the most appropriate treatment options and predicting patient outcomes depends on understanding the stage of colon cancer.

Tumor Grade

Tumor grade is determined by a pathologist based on cell differentiation and growth rate. Cell differentiation in colon cancer grading involves comparing cancer cells to normal cells to ascertain their degree of differentiation. A pathologist takes into consideration factors such as the differentiation of tumor cells, the architecture of the tumor, and the presence of certain features like lymphovascular invasion when grading a colon cancer tumor.

Higher tumor grades indicate more aggressive tumors and may require more intensive treatment regimens. Grading plays a crucial role in predicting the behavior of a tumor, allowing healthcare professionals to develop tailored treatment plans based on the aggressiveness of the cancer cells.

Treatment Options for Stage 3 Colon Cancer

Illustration of chemotherapy treatment

A variety of colon cancer treatment options are available for stage 3 colon cancer, including:

  • Surgery

  • Chemotherapy

  • Radiation therapy

  • Immunotherapy

  • Targeted therapy

These treatments aim to achieve remission or slow the progression of the disease.

The following will detail each of these treatment options.

Surgical Approaches

Surgical approaches for stage 3 colon cancer include colon cancer surgery options such as:

  • Laparoscopic surgery: a minimally invasive technique that involves the insertion of small probes into the area of surgery, containing cameras and instruments for the excision of cancer. This approach has been linked to fewer complications, particularly infections, and patients typically experience less discomfort post-operatively and have a shorter recovery period.

  • Traditional open surgery: a more invasive approach that involves a larger incision to access the area of surgery.

  • Lymph node dissection: the removal of nearby lymph nodes to check for the spread of cancer.

In some cases, traditional open surgery may be required, which may be associated with a lower cumulative recurrence rate. Lymph node dissection, or lymphadenectomy, is a surgical procedure in which the removal of nearby lymph nodes is performed to determine the extent of the cancer. At least 12 lymph nodes are usually extracted during a lymphadenectomy for stage 3 colon cancer, and in some cases, distant lymph nodes may also be examined.

Chemotherapy Regimens

Chemotherapy regimens for stage 3 colon cancer involve combination therapies and neoadjuvant therapy. The customary course of chemotherapy for stage 3 colon cancer is seven or eight cycles administered over a period of six months. The primary form of chemotherapy treatment for stage 3 colon cancer has been observed to be a combination of 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) and leucovorin (LV). The survival rate for patients with stage 3 colon cancer who receive adjuvant chemotherapy is 71%.

Other chemotherapy regimens, such as FOLFOX (5-FU, leucovorin, and oxaliplatin) and CapeOx (capecitabine and oxaliplatin), are also commonly utilized for stage 3 colon cancer. Xeloda, an oral form of 5-FU, has been shown to be just as effective as 5-FU/LV, with fewer side effects and greater convenience for patients.

Neoadjuvant therapy, which involves a course of chemotherapy and radiation before surgery to reduce the primary tumor size, may be used for advanced stage 3 tumors that cannot be completely removed through surgery. In some cases, adjuvant treatment may also be recommended to further ensure the elimination of cancer cells.

Radiation Therapy Techniques

Radiation therapy techniques for stage 3 colon cancer include adjuvant therapy for stage 3C tumors and stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) for inoperable tumors. Adjuvant radiation therapy employs high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells in the region where the tumor was removed and is regularly utilized as follow-up treatment for stage 3 colon cancer to reduce the possibility of recurrence.

Intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT), volumetric arc therapy (VMAT), helical tomotherapy, and proton therapy are various types of radiation therapy used for treating stage 3 colon cancer. Stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) provides highly accurate radiation beams for improved tumor regulation, which may be beneficial for patients with inoperable tumors.

Immunotherapy Advances

Immunotherapy advances, such as checkpoint inhibitors and adoptive cell transfer, can be used as adjuvant therapy for stage 3 colon cancer. Checkpoint inhibitors target “checkpoint proteins” on immune system cells that facilitate recognition and destruction of foreign cells. By blocking checkpoints that cancer cells use to evade recognition from immune cells, checkpoint inhibitors can help the immune system combat cancer more effectively.

Adoptive cell transfer therapy involves the extraction of certain immune cells, referred to as T-cells, from the patient’s blood, and then growing and, in some cases, modifying them in a laboratory setting before administering them back to the patient to bolster their immune system’s capacity to combat cancer cells. Clinical trials are currently underway to assess the efficacy of these immunotherapy advances in treating stage 3 colon cancer.

Targeted Therapy Options

Targeted therapy options for stage 3C colon cancer include VEGF and EGFR inhibitors, which limit cancer cell growth by targeting specific proteins. These cancer treatment options, such as VEGF inhibitors like Avastin (bevacizumab) and Cyramza (ramucirumab), work by impeding the function of VEGF, restricting the proliferation of cancer cells. EGFR inhibitors, such as Erbitux (cetuximab) and Vectibix (panitumumab), impede EGF from attaching to EGFR, restraining cell division and growth.

Clinical trials are currently being conducted by the National Cancer Institute to assess the efficacy of targeted therapies in the treatment of stage 3 colon cancer, including metastatic colon cancer. In addition to VEGF and EGFR inhibitors, researchers have identified potential treatment options for advanced colorectal cancer, such as targeting the KRAS G12C genetic tumor mutation.

Prognosis and Survival Rates

Illustration of survival rates chart

Prognosis and survival rates for stage 3 colon cancer have improved with better screening and the development of newer therapies, such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy. However, colon cancer still accounts for a significant number of new diagnoses and deaths each year. Knowing the prognosis and survival rates for stage 3 colon cancer can equip patients and their families with useful information to assist in their treatment decisions and expectation management.

While many factors influence prognosis and survival rates, including tumor size, location, and the patient’s overall health, the advances in treatment options discussed in this guide offer hope for improved outcomes for those diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer, as well as for those facing stage iv cancer.

Early detection, accurate diagnosis, and tailored treatment plans can play a significant role in improving the prognosis and survival rates for patients with this challenging condition.

Coping Strategies for Stage 3 Colon Cancer Patients

Dealing with a stage 3 colon cancer diagnosis can be emotionally and physically challenging for patients and their families. Developing effective coping strategies can help alleviate stress and improve overall well-being during this difficult time. Seeking support from healthcare professionals, joining support groups, and exploring complementary therapies can provide valuable assistance in managing the challenges of stage 3 colon cancer.

Healthcare professionals can offer support, help navigate treatment options, and assist in the management of side effects. Support groups provide a platform for individuals to share their worries, gain insight from others who have faced similar challenges, and make decisions based on collective experiences. Complementary therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and alternative therapies, may also be beneficial in reducing distress, depression, and anxiety.


In conclusion, understanding stage 3 colon cancer symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options is crucial for improving prognosis and quality of life. Early detection, accurate staging, and a tailored treatment approach can significantly impact survival rates and overall well-being. By staying informed and developing effective coping strategies, patients and their families can navigate the complexities of stage 3 colon cancer with confidence and hope.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is chemo worth it for stage 3 colon cancer?

Given that adjuvant chemotherapy for patients with stage III colon cancer has substantially increased disease-free and overall survival, chemo is worth it for stage 3 colon cancer.

Can Stage 3 cancer be cured?

Stage 3 cancers can be treated successfully, although they may come back. Effective treatments are available for many stage 3 cancers.

What stage of colon cancer is not curable?

Stage 4 (metastatic) colon cancer is not curable as it has spread to other parts of the body. Treatment options are limited and cure is rarely possible even with surgery.

What are the common symptoms of stage 3 colon cancer?

Common symptoms of stage 3 colon cancer include changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain, and rectal bleeding.

How is stage 3 colon cancer diagnosed?

Stage 3 colon cancer is typically diagnosed through a combination of lab tests, imaging studies, colonoscopy, and biopsy.

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