Colon cancer is a common disease that causes colorectal cells to grow uncontrollably and form masses called tumors, but its symptoms are difficult to detect. There are few symptoms early on, so getting screened regularly is the best way to lower your risk. The most common symptom that patients with colon cancer complain of is constipation. New onset of constipation as you age is not necessarily a normal change and should prompt a visit to your primary care provider. You don’t want to wait until the later indicators, such as bloody stool or pain in the abdomen, appear and cause daily discomfort. At this stage of colon cancer, the tumors are probably large, cause more complications and will be more difficult to remove.
Excluding skin-related cancers, colon cancer is the third most frequently diagnosed cancer in Americans today and the second highest cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. However, since the disease is also very curable if detected at an early stage, a thorough and up-to-date knowledge of your family’s medical history and maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help you recognize and prevent signs of colon cancer.
Symptoms of Colon Cancer
• Changes in bowel habits—chronic diarrhea or constipation that lasts for an especially long time (more than a couple of weeks) can be a sign of bigger issues in the large intestine. In additional to indicating colon cancer, functional causes of improper bowel habits include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), infectious diseases, bacterial overgrowth and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
• Blood in the stool—sometimes blood in the stool can be difficult to spot. Usually, it’ll show up as a bright red color or a very dark red, almost black color. Particularly black stool may be an indicator that your stool contains hidden blood. Tests that screen for blood in the stool include fecal occult blood test (FOBT) and fecal immunochemical test (FIT).
• Oddly narrow or thin stool—if you detect stool that seems abnormal in any way, and it continues, you should consult a medical physician. Changes are often a sign of colorectal problems that could lead to colon cancer.
• Unexplained abdominal pain—pain in the abdomen could occur for various reasons, but pains associated with colon cancer include frequent gas pains, bloating, a feeling of fullness or cramps that last for more than a couple of weeks.
• Unexplained weight loss—oftentimes, patients who notice significant weight loss without rational cause undergo colonoscopy. By examining the large intestine, a doctor can diagnose whether nutrients and/or other substances are being properly absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract.
• Constant fatigue
If you’re experiencing any of these conditions, or if you feel like your bowel fails to empty completely, please contact one of our colonoscopy specialists to learn what you can do to screen for colon cancer before it spreads.
Factors that Increase the Chances of Colon Cancer
• Age—unfortunately, some risk factors are out of your control. Usually, experts recommend that anybody, male or female, over the age of 50 be screened regularly, as the chance of colon cancer increases with age. African American males are at slightly increased risk of developing colon cancer, and thus the recommendation for screening begins at age 45 for this population.
• Signs of colon cancer in your personal history—genetics play a big role in determining the likelihood that a patient will be diagnosed with colon cancer. Genetic symptoms such as familial adenomatous polyposis or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome) are strong indicators that a patient might be at risk. Those whose medical records include a history of colorectal polyps (even benign polyps) and other gastrointestinal complications such as ulcerative colitis or inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s Disease) are also encouraged to get tested at an earlier age.
• Excessive fat in your diet—many nutritionists and health specialists, including the American Cancer Society, have confirmed that reducing your consumption of red meat can potentially decrease your chances or being diagnosed with colon cancer by nearly 10 percent. Red meats include beef, pork and other, processed meat products high in fat found in grocery stores, such as sausages and cured sandwich meat. Many Americans would actually be surprised to learn that, according to studies, “too much” red meat is a mere 3 ounces per day for men and 2 ounces for women. That said, limiting yourself to a conscientious amount will take effort and a lot of getting used to—instead, opt for products in fiber like fruits and vegetables and turn to white meats like fish, chicken and turkey for protein.
• Excess weight and inactivity—patients who either are obese or lead sedentary lifestyles are at high risk of colon cancer. They are also more likely to die after being diagnosed than colon cancer patients who have considerably normal weights. Regular exercise and physical activity for at least one hour each day is highly recommended.
• Heavy alcohol intake
Contact one of our colon cancer specialists if you think you may be at risk of colon disease or for more advice on how to decrease your chances of getting diagnosed with colon cancer.
Reviewed 12/12/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014