Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, but unless you’re getting regular colonoscopies, you might not know that you have it. Unlike some other cancers, colorectal cancer very rarely presents symptoms and the symptoms that it does present aren’t out of the ordinary.
“Patients with colorectal cancer often don’t have symptoms early on, or sometimes even at all,” says Thomas McKenna, MD, gastroenterologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital. “By the time symptoms do appear, the cancer may have grown or spread to other organs, which can make treating it much more difficult.”
Knowing the symptoms before they arise can help clue you in to changes, even subtle ones, that could raise a red flag. Keep an eye out for signs like:
• A change in bowel habits that lasts for more than a few days, including diarrhea, constipation and change in stool caliber.
• Bright red or very dark red blood in your stool
• Constant fatigue
• Cramping, abdominal pain or bloating
• Unintended weight loss
These symptoms may be caused by colorectal cancer, but could also be symptoms of other less serious conditions like hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease. Regardless, don’t dismiss them. Talk to your doctor immediately if you notice one or more of these symptoms.
“Certainly people with symptoms need to be evaluated, but the only way to truly lower your risk of developing colorectal cancer is to undergo regular screening exams,” explains Dr. McKenna. “Because pre-cancerous polyps and early cancer are often asymptomatic, regular screening exams for early detection and treatment are key.”
Colorectal cancer screenings
Fortunately, although colorectal cancer has few unique warning signs, it is a treatable disease if detected early. Both women and men should begin having regular colon cancer screenings between ages 45–50. There are a variety of different screening options available, including colonoscopies, fecal occult blood tests, and virtual colonoscopies. Based on your personal health history, family history and cancer risk, you can talk to your physician to determine which option is best for you.