I have a relative who had Stage 3 colon cancer, now a 20-year survivor. But I remember at the time nearly having a heart attack over Stage 3. Stage 4 is when the cancer in the colon has spread outside the walls and goes to other organs. So, yes, she has Stage 4.
I can only guess why you ask, that perhaps you're thinking since it hasn't gone to the lungs or liver, it's not as serious. But once the cancer goes anywhere beyond the original site, it has to be considered a scary situation, to be sure. This is the time to do whatever the doctor says to do, which will certainly include an operation to get all the known cancer out of the body, as well as chemo and sometimes radiation to try to stop any smaller cells from reoccuring at the original site or traveling around the body. This is followed by five years of many repeated exams of both of the colon and the entire body, looking for any new collections of those smaller cells that have already been shown to be released. Also, the treatments are hard on a person all by themselves, and their effects can sometimes bother people beyond when exams are no longer necessary.
Generally speaking, if a person makes it the first two years without a recurrence of cancer anywhere else, things are looking worlds better. Five years is considered cure. But no matter what stage it's in, and while colon cancer is one of the more curable cancers a person can get, the fact that it's gone to two other places makes this very serious, and the docs should be allowed to do everything possible to eradicate and monitor possible further development of the cancer, until her five-year goal is met.
The good thing is, even when cancer goes beyond the original site, treatment has been perfected so well that in a Stage 4 patient and where cancer goes to the lungs, a person can make it. The thing is not to fight recommended treatment... let the doctors be the judge of that. They are not going to go in lightly with the decision on treatment. Which is illustrated perfectly by another situation in my family where the docs hesitated to go forward with treatment, and hemmed and hawed about it, until the family stepped in and said, "Begin treatment NOW." That person is a 10-year survivor, because WE took over, thank goodness.
I would like to add to what I've posted. There are several methods to decide whether a person is in Stage 3 or Stage 4. Some methods, which is the one I know about, says if it spreads only to the lymph nodes, it is Stage 3. Other methods say Stage 3 CAN be broken down into 3A, B, and C, with C going beyond lymph nodes to nearby organs, like the ovaries in colon cancer, and then Stage 4 to distant organs like the lungs, as you had originally suggested. The reason there are several methods of staging cancer is because there are several ways of treating cancer; it's a matter of fine-tuning treatment.
In any case, whether it's Stage 3C or Stage 4, it's serious. That cancer has the potential to keep going to other parts of the body through whatever escape route it has traveled so far, be it blood vessels within the colon wall, or having actually broken through the outer layer. Either way, a person has to undergo many long-term checkups, to make sure the cancer didn't keep going, which demonstrates that the cancer she has is spreading.
But whatever the doctors who are treating her have staged it at, it is done by the way they have analyzed all the scans and bloodwork, how many lymph nodes are involved, whether the cancer at the naval is from the peritoneum of the abdomen or via another route, whether the colon cancer has broken through the wall of the colon, and so on. Also, these doctors that are working with her will be designing a treatment based on the all those in-depth considerations and resultant staging.
I would say if you or the family have any concerns about whether it's Stage 3 or 4, you can always hire a consultant to come in and check over all her records and then advise you as to their idea of how serious the situation is and perhaps a somewhat more conservative treatment than what you are facing. It never hurts to get a second opinion, and often the doctors who are treating her have already asked another set of eyes to look at the situation. But just keep in mind that the clock is ticking, and I believe it is better to err on the side of doing whatever it takes to save a person's life.
When our relative was in Stage 3, the physician called within 10 days or so of compiling the results, and said he could not in good conscience put off treating him, and thus scheduled him for surgery within another 10 days. The fact that the doctor was hurrying even with Stage 3 should tell you something about how come I am trying to get you to not delay too much on this thing. But if you have any concerns at all, everyone will tell you to get a second opinion, and so would I. Just don't take forever to have that done.
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