How to recognize the silent symptoms of colorectal 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 screenings, 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 are essential in stopping colorectal cancer.

What are the signs of colon cancer?

"Patients with colorectal cancer often don't have symptoms early on, or sometimes even at all," says Philip Y. Pearson, MD, colorectal surgeon at Bryn Mawr Hospital and Paoli Hospital, both part of Main Line Health. "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," says Dr. Pearson. "Because precancerous polyps and early cancer often don't show symptoms, regular screening exams for early detection and treatment are key."

How is colorectal cancer detected?

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 screenings 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 screenings. Your doctor can help determine your risk based on your personal health history and family history as well as help identify the most appropriate test for you.

Next steps:

Learn more about Philip Y. Pearson, MD
Learn more about gastroenterology care at Main Line Health
Everything you wanted to know about home colorectal cancer tests