Many of the symptoms of colon cancer can also be caused by something that isn’t cancer, such as infection, hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome, or inflammatory bowel disease. In most cases, people who have these symptoms do not have cancer.
Colon cancer symptoms can be confusing. Common stomach ailments or a change in bowel habits are common occurrences. They don’t always mean that you have a serious condition such as colon cancer. However, not everything should be ignored. Learn about colon cancer symptoms and when it’s a good idea to contact your physician. Common colon cancer symptoms include:
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1. CHANGE IN BOWEL HABITS
While it is common for people to experience a change in their bowel habits from time to time, there are some changes that should be evaluated by a physician if they persist. If you notice any of these changes to your bowel habits, take note of when the changes began to occur and any other lifestyle changes may have occurred at the same time. This information will help your physician determine the cause.
- Diarrhea. Loose stool and diarrhea are common occurrences. The condition can be caused by intolerance to certain foods, medication, stress, or exposure to bacteria (often experienced when traveling). Most people will get at least a mild case of diarrhea several times per year. In most cases, the condition will resolve itself within two to three days. Your health care provider should investigate diarrhea that lasts more than three days.
- Constipation. Constipation is defined as having less than three bowel movements in a week, and it is one of the most common gastrointestinal complaints. Having constipation, however, does not mean you have colon cancer. A change in your diet, poor nutritional habits, stress, dehydration or lack of physical activity can also cause constipation. Physicians generally recommend that if you have constipation for more than two weeks, you should see your doctor so a cause can be determined.
One of the most disturbing symptoms of colon cancer can be bleeding from the rectum or blood in the toilet. Conditions such as hemorrhoids or fissures can also cause small amounts of blood, so if you notice blood, contact your physician and be sure to explain any other symptoms that you may be experiencing at the same time. A large amount of blood may warrant a visit to the emergency room.
3. UNEXPLAINED FATIGUE, WEAKNESS OR WEIGHT LOSS
Chronic rectal bleeding can cause iron deficiency. You might feel tired all of the time and have pale skin as a result. If your energy level drops or you begin to lose weight for no reason, take note of when the changes occur and contact your physician for evaluation.
It is important to remember that most these conditions may have causes other than colon cancer. Fear of a cancer diagnosis shouldn’t keep you away from seeing your health care provider if you are experiencing symptoms. Chances are good that your symptoms can be treated. If cancer is suspected, the earlier the cancer is detected the better off you will be. Nearly 90% of colon cancer is treatable and survivable if diagnosed in its early stages.
4. CHANGE IN THE APPEARANCE OF STOOL
The way that your stool looks can be a good indicator of what is going on inside your body. Small, hard stool is an indicator of constipation. But if you notice one of these other changes, contact your physician.
- Change in Shape. If your stool becomes thin, narrow or ribbon-like this could be an indication of changes inside your colon. Contact your health care provider to have the condition evaluated.
- Change in Color. If you notice blood in the stool, or darkened stool this could also be an indication of changes inside the colon. Your physician can help you to determine the cause.
5. STOMACH DISCOMFORT OR CRAMPING
Like constipation or diarrhea, stomach discomfort is a common occurrence and can be the result of poor diet, food intolerance, stress or other factors. Be aware of discomfort that does not go away or cramping that gets worse. Additionally, if you have the constant feeling that you need to have a bowel movement and the feeling is not relieved by having one, contact your physician.
NOT HAVING ANY SYMPTOMS AT ALL?
Keep in mind, that many people who are diagnosed with colon cancer report having no symptoms prior to their diagnosis. Don’t wait for symptoms to occur to get screened for colon cancer if you are over the age of 50 or if you have a family history of the disease. Talk to your physician or primary care provider to get more information about screening options.
SCREENING COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE
Because colon cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms until it is advanced, the American Cancer Society recommends regular colon cancer screening for most people starting at age 50. People with a family history of the disease or who have certain other risk factors should talk with their doctor about beginning screening at a younger age. Several different tests can be used to screen for colon cancer. Talk with your doctor to find out which tests might be right for you.
WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR
If you notice any symptoms of colon cancer, such as blood in your stool or a persistent change in bowel habits, make an appointment with your doctor.
Talk to your doctor about when you should begin screening for colon cancer. Guidelines generally recommend that colon cancer screenings begin at age 50. Your doctor may recommend more frequent or earlier screening if you have other risk factors, such as a family history of the disease.
Factors that may increase your risk of colon cancer include:
- Older age. The great majority of people diagnosed with colon cancer are older than 50. Colon cancer can occur in younger people, but it occurs much less frequently.
- African-American race. African-Americans have a greater risk of colon cancer than do people of other races.
- A personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps. If you've already had colon cancer or adenomatous polyps, you have a greater risk of colon cancer in the future.
- Inflammatory intestinal conditions. Chronic inflammatory diseases of the colon, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, can increase your risk of colon cancer.
- Inherited syndromes that increase colon cancer risk. Genetic syndromes passed through generations of your family can increase your risk of colon cancer. These syndromes include familial adenomatous polyposis and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, which is also known as Lynch syndrome.
- Family history of colon cancer. You're more likely to develop colon cancer if you have a parent, sibling or child with the disease. If more than one family member has colon cancer or rectal cancer, your risk is even greater.
- Low-fiber, high-fat diet. Colon cancer and rectal cancer may be associated with a diet low in fiber and high in fat and calories. Research in this area has had mixed results. Some studies have found an increased risk of colon cancer in people who eat diets high in red meat and processed meat.
- A sedentary lifestyle. If you're inactive, you're more likely to develop colon cancer. Getting regular physical activity may reduce your risk of colon cancer.
- Diabetes. People with diabetes and insulin resistance may have an increased risk of colon cancer.
- Obesity. People who are obese have an increased risk of colon cancer and an increased risk of dying of colon cancer when compared with people considered normal weight.
- Smoking. People who smoke may have an increased risk of colon cancer.
- Alcohol. Heavy use of alcohol may increase your risk of colon cancer.
- Radiation therapy for cancer. Radiation therapy directed at the abdomen to treat previous cancers may increase the risk of colon cancer.
- The American Cancer Society’s Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2011-2013 (http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@epidemiologysurveilance/documents/document/acspc-028323.pdf)
- National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus: Colorectal Cancer (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/colorectalcancer.html)