During Colon Cancer Awareness Month, it's important to know the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer. Treatment is most likely to be successful if colon cancer is caught early.
Colorectal cancer (commonly known as colon cancer) is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States among both men and women.
Early colon cancers may not cause any symptoms, which is why preventive screening is recommended. During a procedure like colonoscopy, a physician can detect and even remove non-cancerous growths called polyps, which can become cancerous and bleed.
Still, it's important to know the signs and symptoms of colon cancer and see your doctor if you're experiencing any of them.
Colon Cancer Symptoms
- Constant tiredness and fatigue
- A change in bowel habits that lasts for more than a few days. This includes diarrhea, constipation, narrowing of the stool, or a change in consistency of the stool.
- Blood in the stool (either bright red or very dark) or rectal bleeding
- A feeling that your bowel does not empty completely
- Frequent gas pains or cramps, or feeling full or bloated
- Weight loss for no known reason
- Nausea and vomiting
A Few Things to Remember
"The main symptom for colon cancer is fatigue caused by anemia, which usually doesn't cause dark or bloody stools," said Doylestown Health colorectal surgeon Robert Akbari, MD. "Fatigue can be vague and may be a symptom for a number of conditions, so that makes screening all the more important."
The American Cancer Society recommends that at age 50, both men and women with average risk for developing colorectal cancer should get a screening test.
Watch Video: Colon Cancer: Don't Ignore Your Symptoms
American Cancer Society created "Colon Cancer: Don't Ignore Your Symptoms." It took losing her mother to colon cancer to prompt Alyson Smith to talk to a doctor about her symptoms. She shares her emotional story of colon cancer diagnosis and survival.
"There are more ways to screen for colon cancer than just colonoscopy," said Dr. Akbari. "They include a yearly fecal occult blood test, which is usually given by your primary doctor. Virtual colonoscopy or barium enema can be done every five years. And if you do not have a family history, colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years."
It's important to note that colonoscopy cannot only diagnose cancer, it can also prevent it, since the physician can remove pre-cancerous polyps detected during the procedure.
Remember, too, that colon cancer is not gender specific. "Sometimes people think of colon cancer as a man's disease, and breast cancer as a woman's disease," Dr. Akbari said. "The truth is, both men and women are affected by colorectal cancer."
Learn more about Colorectal Cancer Screening Guidelines
Of cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. and the third most common cancer in men and in women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Talk to Your Doctor
Even Dr. Akbari admits the subject can be hard to broach.
"Anything related to the bowels doesn't make for great table conversation," he said. "That plays a role in the lack of comfort some people might feel in discussing the subject."
But things are changing, thanks to awareness raised by people like Katie Couric, who, after losing her husband to colon cancer at age 42, started a public campaign that included having her colonoscopy shown on the Today Show in 2000.
Bottom line: speak up, especially if you're experiencing changes to what's normal for you or any symptoms.
"You have to be your own health advocate," advised Dr. Akbari. "If you're having symptoms, don't ignore them. It may be nothing, but it's better to get it checked out for sure."
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