Colon and rectal cancer symptoms are not always easy to spot, missing opportunities for early diagnosis. For one, many people with cancer of the colon or rectum (known as colon cancer) do not experience any symptoms until the disease has progressed to a more advanced stage where treatment is more difficult. Therefore, screening tests in apparently unaffected individuals are of the utmost importance.
Early detection: a big advantage
The decline in colorectal cancer deaths over the past few decades is due in part to increased screening efforts that identify asymptomatic cancers. Screening tests can also identify abnormal growths called colorectal polyps, some of which may be precancerous. When doctors remove potentially dangerous polyps, they stop the cancer before it starts. Another complication of diagnosing colon and rectal cancer is that even when symptoms are present, cancer patients and doctors may blame other common conditions, such as hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome.
Also, many younger people believe that colorectal cancer only affects older people, so they are probably unaware of the symptoms. However, while the vast majority of colorectal cancers still occur in older people, rates are increasing sharply in men and women under 50.
7 symptoms and signs of colon and rectal cancer
Regardless of your age, the following symptoms should prompt you to see a doctor:
A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool (feces) that lasts for more than a few days. A feeling of needing to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by a bowel movement Cramps or abdominal pain Weakness and tiredness Unintentional weight loss
Although people with colon cancer may not have rectal bleeding or blood in their stools, for many these are the most recognizable signs of the disease.
These symptoms appear when the cancer spreads through the digestive tract. This can happen very slowly over years, so that the presence of blood in the stool may not even be noticeable. Over time, this ongoing loss of blood can lead to a decrease in the number of red blood cells, a condition called anemia. Blood tests to diagnose anemia can be the first step in diagnosing colon or rectal cancer.
Discuss the symptoms with your doctor
Once you have described the symptoms to your doctor, they will likely have you examined to determine the cause. The doctor will likely ask about your medical history and will ask if family members have colon cancer, particularly your parents, siblings, or children. Most people who develop colon cancer do not have a family history of the disease, but 1 in 5 do.
The main risk factors for colorectal cancer
In rare cases, genetic mutations passed down families, like Lynch syndrome, can make a person extremely susceptible to colon cancer. Your doctor will want to know if you have other health problems, particularly those affecting the colon and rectum, that may increase your risk of colon cancer. This may be a history of colon cancer or precancerous polyps, or an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. There is also a link between type 2 diabetes and colon cancer. Other risk factors include obesity or overweight, low levels of physical activity, heavy alcohol consumption and smoking.
What tests to get to the bottom of it?
The health check includes a physical exam and blood tests. Once the doctor knows your medical history, the next step may be a physical exam of your body, which involves gentle pressure on your abdomen to look for any lumps or enlarged organs. The doctor may also examine your rectum by inserting a gloved, lubricated finger to check for abnormalities. The doctor may order blood tests to look for changes that indicate the presence of colon cancer.
This is not only a test to see if you are anemic, but also a test that measures liver enzymes and substances called tumor markers. If you haven’t observed any rectal bleeding or blood in your stool, your doctor may advise you to have a test to identify hidden blood. In these tests, which include a stool blood test and a stool immunochemical test, one or more stool samples are collected at home, placed in a special container, and sent back to the doctor’s office or medical laboratory.
Your doctor may suggest a colonoscopy
You can also leave the doctor’s office with a prescription for a diagnostic colonoscopy. During this procedure, a gastroenterologist examines the inside of the colon and rectum with a device inserted through the anus: a long, thin, flexible light tube with a tiny video camera attached to the end. If the exam shows suspicious growths, the gastroenterologist may remove tissue for a biopsy to determine whether or not cancerous cells are present. The night before a colonoscopy, people who have a colonoscopy should have their colon and rectum cleaned. In this procedure, a strong laxative solution is drunk. People undergoing a colonoscopy are usually sedated during the procedure.
* Presse Santé strives to convey health knowledge in a language accessible to all. In NO CASE can the information given replace the advice of a doctor.
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