Other than skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described below, it is very important for you to get checked out by your doctor. It might be nothing but then again, it might be something. Here’s what to look for, when to worry, and also, when not to.
What is colon cancer
Colorectal cancer refers to cancer that starts in either the colon or the rectum. Colon cancer and rectal cancer have many features in common. Most colorectal cancers start as a polyp — a growth that starts in the inner lining of the colon or rectum and grows toward the center. It’s important to know that most polyps are not cancer. Only certain types (adenomas) can become cancer. Removing a polyp early when it is small may prevent it from becoming cancer.
10 colon cancer symptoms you need to pay attention to
1. Red, purple, or black blood in your stool
The most common, and most indicative, symptom of colon cancer is blood in the stool. It does not have to be bright red — black, purple or maroon in color and tarry or sticky in consistency all warrant concern. The reason for the blood? Cancer is abnormal tissue and bleeds easier than normal tissue.
When blood in the stool is NOT cancer: Blood in the stool may be due to bleeding hemorrhoids, inflammation of the colon, a bleeding ulcer in your stomach or colitis. If you’re older and/or have a family history of colon cancer, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, rectal bleeding is a serious concern. You should see your doctor as soon as possible. He/she will send a stool sample to a lab for a fecal occult blood test.
2. Going to the bathroom more, or less, often
If you notice a change in your bowel habits — looser, narrow, stringy, more frequent stools or “going” a lot less — see your doctor. It could be that cancer is blocking the movement of your bowels. What else it could be: Unfamiliar or bacteria-carrying foods can upset your stomach and cause a change in bowel frequency. In this case, the culprit could be food poisoning, not cancer. Also, some diseases such as giardia — an infection in the small intestine — can be contracted when water gets mixed with sewage.
3. Rectal Bleeding
Bleeding from the rectum occurs in more than half of people with colon cancer. Often appearing as a painful bowel movement, the blood is usually bright red and it may be found in the toilet bowl water or on the toilet paper.
4. Abdominal Pain
A certain amount of abdominal discomfort, or stomach aches, is normal (irritable bowel syndrome, for example, can have similar symptoms as colon cancer) but if you are experiencing severe, persistent abdominal pain, it would be wise to get checked out by your doctor.
5. Unexplained weight loss
Colon cancer can cause weight loss even if you are eating normally. It can also cause a complete loss of appetite. Although unexplained weight loss certainly might not be colon cancer, it’s something that should raise suspicion.
Constipation that persists more than a few days could be a symptom of colon cancer, as well as changes in the passing of stools (feeling like you’ve not completely passed a stool or an urgent need to have a bowel movement when there is no stool to be passed).
Blood that is lost from colon cancer can cause anemia, which is a shortage of red blood cells in the blood. Symptoms of anemia are feeling tired much of the time, weakness and shortness of breath. Your skin may also look pale.
Persistent diarrhea is a symptom of colon cancer. More than 1 in 5 people with colon cancer will experience diarrhea.
9. Nausea and vomiting
If you are experiencing persistent nausea and vomiting for no apparent reason, this may be a indication that you have colon cancer. It is possible to experience these with or without other abdominal symptoms.
10. A general sense that you are not well
This symptom is not specific to colorectal cancer but is a general symptom of most forms of cancer and should be taken as a warning sign if experienced in conjunction with any of the symptoms discussed above. You should see your doctor if you notice that you are feeling lethargic, depressed weak and fragile.
Getting tested for colon cancer
Early cases of colon cancer can begin as noncancerous polyps. These often have no symptoms but can be detected by screening. Polyps found before they become cancerous can be removed and colorectal cancer can therefore be prevented. For this reason, doctors strongly recommend regular screenings if you are at high risk (family history) or over the age of 50.
Several different tests can be used to screen for colorectal cancers. These tests can be divided into 2 groups:
1. Tests that can find both colorectal polyps and cancer: These tests look at the structure of the colon itself to find any abnormal areas and are performed either with a scope inserted into the rectum or with special imaging (x-ray) tests. These include:
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy
- Double-contrast barium enema
- CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy)
2. Tests that mainly find cancer: These involve testing the stool (feces) for signs that cancer may be present. These tests are less invasive and easier to have done, but they are less likely to detect polyps. These include:
- Guaiac-based fecal occult blood test
- Fecal immunochemical test
- Stool DNA test
Early detection is key
With early detection of colon cancer, surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy can be effective treatment. The most important thing is to alert your doctor if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms. If you are concerned about colon cancer, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health gastroenterology specialists. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.