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Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer
General Wellness

Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer

Posted: March 27, 2023

Many of us wonder when to be concerned about symptoms related to our health. Is that back pain just a stretched muscle or the sign of something more serious? Is that rumbling in my stomach something I ate or a sign that I might have a problem with acid reflux? While most signs and symptoms can be better evaluated by seeing a healthcare provider than by scrolling through Google or other search engines to figure out what is going on, it’s worth focusing on one of the most concerning causes of abdominal symptoms, colon cancer.

Warning Signs of Colon Cancer           

The unfortunate reality is that most colon cancer has no symptoms in its earliest stages. This is one reason why screening for colon cancer is so important. Many of the symptoms of colon cancer only appear in more advanced stages because sometimes symptoms are related to cancer obstructing the inside of the colon (the lumen) or because the tumor has grown so large that it releases large amounts of blood into the stool. Obstruction of the colon can often lead to abdominal distention (swelling), persistent abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Sometimes incomplete obstruction with a smaller tumor and other changes to the digestive system from colon cancer can also lead to changes in bowel habits. Blood loss from a tumor in the digestive system can lead to either bright red blood being separated from or mixed in with the stool or (usually in the setting of bleeding higher up in the digestive system) black tarry stools called melena. Many of the causes of blood in the stool can represent an emergency, including something other than colon cancer. If you are worried you have blood in your stool, it is often appropriate to go to the ER.   


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Is it Colon Cancer or Something Else?

Other signs of colon cancer are not as specific. Some patients have anemia (low red blood cell counts) due to blood loss from colon cancer that is not rapid enough to be noticed in the stool or unexplained weight loss without other symptoms. Colon cancer can also cause severe abdominal pain if it causes perforation of the colon (another emergency). In other situations, a tumor spreading to other structures or putting pressure on them can similarly cause persistent abdominal pain.

While these are some of the more common symptoms of colon cancer, this article is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Many of the symptoms listed here are also commonly caused by other medical conditions, which capture the whole spectrum from serious to routine. If you or someone you love is having symptoms that could be related to colon cancer, it is always worth seeing your healthcare provider or going to the ER in the case of urgent or emergent symptoms.

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Colon Cancer Prevention

If colon cancer is so sinister that it often doesn’t show symptoms until late in the disease, what is the answer? Screening! The US Preventative Services Task Force recommends screening average-risk individuals for colon cancer starting at age 45. This was a recent change from the past when screening was recommended at age 50. Some individuals have a higher risk for colon cancer and benefit from earlier screenings due to family or personal history of certain medical conditions. Most healthcare providers agree that a colonoscopy is the gold standard to screen for colon cancer for most patients. It carries the benefits of screening for a problem and intervening if any pre-cancerous polyps are found. If you require screening for colon cancer, would like to discuss which screening option is right for you, or if you wonder if you would benefit from an earlier screening due to specific risk factors, the best place to start is with your primary care provider. Primary care providers focus on providing individual, preventive care for medical problems specific to their patient’s situations.

Talk with your primary care doctor about other recommendations for better colon health, including colon cancer screening options.