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How to recognize the silent symptoms of colorectal cancer

Bryn Mawr Hospital March 13, 2022 Cancer

Colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers and one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in the United States. But unless you're having regular colorectal cancer screening, you might not know you have it.

Colorectal cancer may not show symptoms until the cancer is more advanced. We call these the silent symptoms of colorectal cancer. Early screening to detect precancerous polyps or early stage cancer is essential in stopping colorectal cancer.

"Patients with colorectal cancer often don't have symptoms early on, or sometimes even at all," says Jonathan Gotfried, 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 silent symptoms of colorectal cancer 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 gastrointestinal 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.

"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. Gotfried. "Because precancerous polyps and early cancer often don't show symptoms, regular screening exams for early detection and treatment are key."

Fortunately, although colorectal cancer has few unique warning signs, it is a treatable disease if detected early. A colonoscopy is one way to detect cancer and precancerous polyps.

People of all genders should begin having regular colonoscopy at age 45. Screening starts earlier if patients have a family history of colorectal cancer or other risk factors. In average risk patients, stool-based testing is another option for colorectal cancer screening. Your doctor can help determine your risk based on your personal health history and family history and the most appropriate test for you.

Refer to colonoscopy cancer screening FAQ for more information.

To discuss colorectal cancer screening options or to schedule an appointment with a Main Line Health colorectal or gastroenterology specialist, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.