With cancer being the second most common cause of death in the United States, every person needs to be aware of this killer disease. It affects children, adolescents and adults although the elderly are at a greater risk. Among the different types of cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most deadly cancer among Americans. It causes close to 50,000 deaths a year in the USA.
Colon cancer is a malignant (cancerous) growth in the colon of the large intestine. Since this type of cancer also occurs in the rectum which lies next to the colon, it is collectively referred to as colorectal cancer. This type of cancer usually arises as polyps in the cancer or rectum. Most of the time it arises from the cells of the colon and rectum which are responsible for producing mucus and other fluids. These cancers are known as adenocarcinmas.
How To Spot Colon Cancer?
The only way to conclusively identify colorectal cancer is to undego diagnostic investigations that can confirm the presence of a cancerous growth. One of the most effective and conclusive methods is to take a tissue sample of the growth (biopsy) and examine it under a microscope. Other investigations can help to identify the extent of the cancer and whether it has spread beyond the site where it originated.
Colorectal cancer presents with a host of signs and symptoms. It is important to understand that colorectal cancer may not present with any symptoms in the early stages. Furthermore, these signs and symptoms may be common to other non-cancerous conditions, like hemorrhoids, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and bowel infections. Therefore diagnosing colon cancer based solely on the signs and symptoms can be inaccurate.
Read more on colon cancer.
Unusual Bowel Habit
A change in bowel habit is often not associated with colorectal cancer but it can occur in this condition. It can vary from more frequent bowel movements and even diarrhea to constipation. While these changes in bowel habit are not uncommon, it is usually acute. With colorectal cancer the changes may persist and are usually present for more than four weeks. However, other conditions like IBS and IBD also present with chronic changes.
It is important to note that a change in bowel habit may also differ from one person to another. Some people may pass stool once or twice daily while others may not pass stool daily but at least three times or more in a week. These patterns are still considered to be a normal bowel habit. With a change in bowel habit there is a deviation from what a person considers to be normal to themselves.
Feeling of Bowel Not Empty
Tenesmus is a sensation that the bowel is not empty even after passing stool. However, this sensation is not due to the presence of residual stool in the rectum. It is instead due to the presence of the malignant tumor in the rectum and the sensation may worsen as the cancer advances. It is also described as having an incomplete bowel movement.
It is not an uncommon symptom and many people with constipation experience tenesmus but in these cases it is more likely to due to residual stool in the rectum. Understandably a high fiber diet and laxatives commonly used for constipation do not help to relieve the sensation in colorectal cancer. Tenesmus may also be present with conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastroenteritis and other acute causes of diarrhea, and hemorrhoids.
Bleeding from Anus
Rectal bleeding is another common sign of colorectal cancer. It can be mild where only a few spots of blood is noticed when wiping after a bowel movement. However, in severe cases there may copious bleeding where the toilet water and even the underwear is stained red with the blood. When the bleeding occurs higher up the bowels it my appear darker in color and give stool a dark tarry appearance.
As with other symptoms, rectal bleeding is not uncommon in many other conditions. It is a common sign in hemorrhoids (piles), especially where there is bleeding when wiping after a bowel movement. Blood in the stool can be due to a host of different causes and sometimes it may not be clearly visible. Small amounts of blood may go unnoticed or detected with an investigation like a fecal occult blood test (FOBT).
Read more on rectal bleeding.
Persistent Lower Abdominal Pain
Abdominal pain is a common symptom and due to various different conditions. When it occurs with colorectal cancer the discomfort, cramps or pain is felt in the lower abdomen and usually more in the pelvic region. Some people may also describe it as rectal or anal pain, while others may mistaken it for deep bladder pain and discomfort. Abdominal pain or discomfort on its own is non-specific and can occur with many different conditions.
In fact cancer is not always the first condition suspected when there is abdominal discomfort or pain especially if there are no other signs and symptoms. Many people who do have colorectal cancer may not even experience any discomfort, cramps or pain until late stages of the disease. However, in people who are at high risk of colorectal cancer it is warranted to conduct further investigation for cancer in the even of lower abdominal pain.
Fatigue and Weight Loss
Both fatigue and weight loss are common in most types of cancers. With fatigue it tends to persist and sometimes be severe despite sleeping properly, eating well and exercising. Most people describe it as unexplained fatigue and it can sometimes exist on its own without any other symptoms. However, fatigue is a common symptom in many different conditions and is difficult to associate with cancer.
Unintentional weight loss is where a person notices a reduction in body weight despite eating the same amount as usual or even eating more especially without a change in physical activity levels. It often accompanies the fatigue. As with fatigue the unintentional weight loss on its own is difficult to associate with cancer and can occur with a host of different conditions. It does however warrant the need for further investigations.