Colon cancer is one of the most common cancers in both men and women. The chance of getting this disease increases with age. Most cases arise from pre-existing polyps, but colon cancer can also arise on its own. Because of its location in the abdomen and its ability to spread, colon cancer has a high mortality rate. However, if you catch colon cancer early, it has a cure rate of over 90%.
If one or more people in your family have had colon cancer, your risk of getting it is higher. The risk is highest if a first-degree relative, a parent or sibling, had colon cancer. Although a positive family history doesn't mean you have colon cancer, take it as a warning to observe yourself more carefully for the following signs and to have yourself screened by a health professional. See your doctor if your family has a history of colon cancer and you have one or more of these signs.
As cancer grows, it invades the wall of the colon and damages blood vessels. The blood from these damaged vessels may go into the colon. In that case, you will see it when you use the toilet. The blood might appear like drops of blood in the water, like a smear of blood on the toilet paper when you wipe, or the stools themselves may have blood on them. Visible blood is more common with cancers that involve the distant colon and rectum. Keep in mind that blood might also come from hemorrhoids, so seeing blood does not mean you have cancer.
Another sign of colon cancer is a bowel movement that look black or tarry. Bleeding higher up in the colon can result in stools with this unusual appearance. Blood that is produced higher up in the colon has time to break down before it leaves the body. Bleeding from the small intestines, stomach, and esophagus can also result in tarry stools. If your bowel movements have the look and consistency of tar, this is a very worrisome sign.
Colon cancer irritates the lining of the intestines as it progresses, resulting in cramping and pain. This sign is not specific to colon cancer. Infections and inflammatory conditions of the bowel, as well as menstruation, can also cause cramping. You can also have colon cancer and experience no pain or cramping at all. However, if you have this symptom for more than a few days, especially if any other signs are present, see a doctor.
Experiencing weakness, tiredness, or lightheadedness can be another sign of colon cancer. Colon cancer sometimes causes bleeding into the intestines. Over time, chronic bleeding results in anemia and symptoms of weakness and fatigue due to iron deficiency. Cancer itself can also cause fatigue, even if there isn't a lot of bleeding. This is due to the release of special proteins into the blood or consumption of the body's energy by the growing cancer. Many types of cancer can cause tiredness, so it is not specific to colon cancer.
People who have colon cancer sometimes experience changes in bowel habits. Someone who normally has regular, solid bowel movements may begin to have more frequent stools that are looser in consistency. This change in bowel habits could be regular and ongoing or intermittent. Diarrhea is normally associated with benign conditions and goes away within a few days. If you have diarrhea that lasts more than a couple of weeks, it could be a sign of colon cancer.
Colon cancer can also cause constipation. This is when bowel movements happen less frequently, or it is difficult to empty the bowel due to the stool being harder than normal. Constipation is very common. It can be caused by poor diet, a change in eating habits, dehydration, and inadequate physical activity. Constipation, in itself, is usually due to benign reasons. However, it could be a sign of colon cancer and should be evaluated if it lasts for two or more weeks.
In the past, doctors considered narrow stools a "classic" sign of colon cancer. However, there is no need to worry about them if you don't have other symptoms. What this sign means is that the caliber or diameter of the stool becomes smaller, resulting in bowel movements that have a stringy appearance. You may hear this referred to as "low-caliber" or "pencil-thin" stool. This is in contrast to the normal caliber of stool, which is about 1-2 inches in diameter. If you notice that your stool is narrower than normal, it could just be that the consistency is looser or you need more fiber in your diet.
Weight loss is one of the more frequent complaints in patients who have cancer. However, it usually occurs in the later, advanced stages. In people who have colon cancer, the weight loss could be due to the progression of cancer, accompanying diarrhea, or abdominal pain that leads to the patient eating less. Although losing weight is sometimes desirable, if it cannot be explained by reduced caloric intake or increased physical activity, this is a cause for concern and could be a sign of colon cancer.
An urge to have a bowel movement that isn't relieved by using the bathroom could be a sign of colon cancer. This is different from constipation, in which bowel movements are infrequent or difficult to pass. With an increased urge to defecate, there may be a bowel movement, but the urge to go remains. This symptom is more commonly seen in patients who have cancer in the distant colon or the rectum. It is caused by increased pressure exerted on the bowel by cancer. If you are feeling an urge to empty your bowels, but this sensation does not go away after using the bathroom, it could be a sign of colon cancer.
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