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10 Signs of Colon Cancer

Finding out you have colon cancer can be an unnerving experience. Not including skin cancers, colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer diagnosed in the United States among men and women.

Fortunately—and thanks to ongoing advances in colon cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment—people with colon cancer are living longer and enjoying a better quality of living even after their diagnosis.

One important thing to know: people with colon cancer tend to have better outcomes when they're diagnosed early! This is why our team at AnMed Health encourages everyone to understand who's at risk for colon cancer, what its signs and symptoms are and when you should call a doctor with your concerns.

What is colon cancer?

Cancer happens when abnormal cells begin to grow and multiply out of control, often developing into tumors and spreading into surrounding tissues. Colon cancer is cancer that starts in the colon, also known as the large intestine. As noted by the American Cancer Society, you might also hear this condition called colorectal cancer, which refers to cancer that starts in either the colon or the rectum. (The rectum is the last several inches of the large intestine, beginning at the end of the colon and leading to the anus.) Colon cancer and rectal cancer are often talked about together since they share so many similar features.

Your colon (large intestine) is a muscular tube about 5 feet long. Its primary role is to absorb fluids and store and pass waste (stool). The colon has four parts or segments: the ascending colon, the transverse colon, the descending colon and the sigmoid colon. The sigmoid colon attaches to the rectum.

Risk factors

As is true for other types of cancer, we don't know for sure why some people get colon cancer and others don't—this is one reason why colon cancer screening is so important. Research does point to several risk factors that appear to increase the likelihood of colon cancer diagnosis, including

  • Family history
  • Age (about 90 percent of all cases of colon cancer are diagnosed in people between the ages of 50 and 75)
  • Obesity
  • Inactivity
  • Diet
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Other underlying health conditions, including diabetes and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis

Some of these risk factors, such as your age or family history, aren't modifiable. But many other risk factors, like physical inactivity, smoking, obesity and diet, are modifiable. This means there are things you can do that may reduce your risk of being diagnosed with colon cancer.

Signs of colon cancer

Most of the signs of colon cancer can also be caused by multiple other health issues, many of which are benign (noncancerous). Even so, you should always talk to your doctor if you experience any of the following signs or symptoms. Seeking medical attention allows you to get an accurate diagnosis and ensure you receive the right solutions for your individual health needs.

1. Blood in stool

When blood is in your stool, it might look like bright red streaks or dark purplish clots. Your stool could also look dark, black or tarry. Look for blood in the stool, on toilet paper, on undergarments or in the water.

2. Change in stool frequency

You might notice that you need to empty your bowels much more often or much less often than you usually do. There's no "normal" number of bowel movements a person should have, but many people seem to fall somewhere within the range of three times per day to three times per week.

3. Change in stool appearance

Your stool might become smaller or ribbon-shaped, or it could start to have more mucous in it. You might also experience new constipation or diarrhea that lasts for more than a few days.

4. Rectal pain

This can include pain or a sense of pressure in and around your anus and rectum, especially during bowel movements.

5. Abdominal pain

Abdominal pain that warrants a chat with your doctor includes any type of stomach discomfort, bloating, cramping or gas pain lasting longer than a few days.

6. Unintentional weight loss

Losing weight without trying is a very vague symptom that needs to be investigated further with your physician. According to the U.S. Library of Medicine, unintentional weight loss is losing 10 pounds or 5% of your normal weight within 6 to 12 months without trying and without knowing why.

7. Anemia

If a cancerous tumor inside your colon is bleeding, you might start to have low levels of red blood cells (anemia). This will show up on a blood test ordered by your doctor.

8. Fatigue or weakness

Persistent fatigue and weakness is often a result of anemia, which could develop from bleeding in the colon.

9. Sense of incomplete emptying of the bowels

You might feel as if you never fully empty your bowels, or feel as if you need to have a bowel movement even when there isn't any stool present in your rectum.

10. No symptoms

Early on, most colon cancers don't have any symptoms at all. However, even in this early, symptom-free stage, doctors can still detect and diagnose colon cancer (or precancerous growths in the colon called polyps that may turn into cancer later on). In the early stages, colon cancers are typically smaller and easier to treat.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends regular screening for colon cancer beginning at age 50 for both men and women. Your doctor will help you determine how often you should be screened, depending on your risk factors and overall health.

What to do if you have these symptoms

You can't tell by signs and symptoms alone whether you have colon cancer. The only way to know for sure what's causing your symptoms is to get checked out by a doctor. So, if you experience things like persistent abdominal cramping, unexplained fatigue or bowel issues, contact a physician. Our Anderson colorectal oncology team has direct access to advanced testing and tools that will help us determine the root cause of your symptoms, allowing you to get started on an appropriate treatment plan as efficiently as possible.

At AnMed Health, our team of board-certified colorectal surgeons and medical oncologists works with patients throughout upstate South Carolina and northeast Georgia. Don't hesitate to seek professional help if you have concerns about your or your loved one's digestive health. The sooner you seek professional treatment, the sooner you can have peace of mind and a personalized plan of care. Speak with your family doctor to arrange a screening or to determine if a consultation with a colorectal specialist is needed.


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