Colon cancer represents the third-most common cancer diagnosed in the United States, as of 2015. The lifetime risk of developing this disease is approximately one in 20, or 5 percent. Colon cancer develops slowly over several years and starts as small polyps along the inner lining of the colon. Patients should call a doctor when certain symptoms become noticeable.
Changes in Bowel Habits
Changes in bowel habits may include diarrhea, constipation and narrowing of the stool, which can be as narrow as a pencil. This type of symptom persists for several days. Patients may use the bathroom constantly, or they can feel as if they need to go when the colon is completely empty.
Bleeding from the rectum causes stool to turn black or red. Blood loss from bleeding polyps within the colon can lead to low red blood cell counts or even anemia. A blood test may signify colon cancer if the red blood cell count is too low.
Abdominal pain in the belly area can feel similar to bloating, pressure or gas. The area around the stomach or lower abdomen may also feel tender. Other medical conditions may cause this pain, so patients should be checked thoroughly before a diagnosis is made.
Other symptoms with unexplained causes can also signal colon cancer. The body may unexpectedly lose weight when everything else seems normal. In addition, fatigue, weakness and constant tiredness may indicate colon cancer. A doctor may order a complete blood count to determine the cause of these symptoms or any unexplained bruising or anemia.
Individuals should check with a doctor if they have certain risk factors for colon cancer. Patients who are older than 60 and have African American or Eastern European descent have higher risks for developing the disease. People who eat significant amounts of red meat or processed meats may also be at risk. In addition, colorectal polyps, inflammatory bowel disease and family histories of colon cancer increase the risk for getting colon cancer.
Other Conditions with Similar Symptoms
Many of these symptoms can be caused by other medical conditions. For example, an infection, hemorrhoids, inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome may have similar symptoms. Patients should check with their doctors to determine a cause and receive proper treatment.
Two main tests help detect colon cancer. A fecal occult blood test detects tiny amounts of blood in the stool so doctors can ascertain if any polyps may have started bleeding. A colonoscopy represents the most thorough screening test available to detect possible colon cancer. This procedure involves a colonoscope, a device with a small video camera that allows a doctor to examine the inside of the colon. The colonoscope lets doctors view the large intestine all the way to the end of the small intestine.
Who to See
Patients can be checked out by general practitioners, gastroenterologists, colorectal surgeons and other health professionals. The sooner colon cancer gets detected, the better the chances are for survival during early detection and treatment to remove polyps before they become cancerous or before the cancer spreads.