Colon cancer, which is also called colorectal cancer, is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women in the United States. For men, the overall risk of developing colon cancer is about one in 22, which equates to 4.49 percent.
Many symptoms can indicate colon cancer, but if someone has these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean that they have this disease. There are many other explanations for the symptoms, such as infections or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
However, anyone experiencing new symptoms may wish to visit a doctor for a diagnosis.
The symptoms of colon cancer are the same in men and women and include the following:
1. Changes in bowel habits
A person who suspects that they may have colon cancer should speak to a doctor.
An upset stomach or a minor infection can often cause changes in the bowels, such as constipation, diarrhea, or very narrow, thin stools. However, these issues usually resolve within a few days as the illness subsides.
Changes in the bowels that last more than a few days may be a sign of an underlying health issue.
If a person has these symptoms regularly or for longer than a few days, they should see a doctor.
2. Cramps and bloating
Occasional cramps or bloating are common digestive issues that can occur due to an upset stomach, gas, or eating certain foods.
Experiencing frequent, unexplained cramps and bloating can be a sign of colon cancer, though these symptoms are more often the result of other health issues.
3. Feeling as though the bowels are not empty
If a growth turns into a blockage in the colon, it may cause the person to feel as though they can never empty their bowels.
Even if their bowels are empty, they will still feel the need to use the restroom again.
4. Blood in the stool
Seeing blood in the stool can be frightening. The stool may have streaks of fresh red blood, or the whole stool may have a darker, tarry appearance.
There are many other possible causes of bloody stools, such as hemorrhoids. However, anyone experiencing blood in their stool should still see a doctor for a diagnosis.
5. Unexplained weight loss
Suddenly and unexpectedly losing weight is a sign of several types of cancer. Unintentionally losing 10 pounds or more within 6 months may be a sign to report to a doctor.
In people with cancer, the weight loss may be due to cancer cells consuming more of the body’s energy. The immune system is also working hard to fight the cancer cells.
If the tumor is large, it may lead to blockages in the colon, which can cause bowel changes and further weight loss.
People with colon cancer may feel constant fatigue or weakness, possibly due to the cancer cells using extra energy and the stress of bowel symptoms. Although feeling tired now and then is normal, chronic fatigue does not go away with rest.
Chronic fatigue is generally a symptom of an underlying condition. Anyone experiencing fatigue should see a doctor to help determine the cause.
7. Shortness of breath
Once cancer begins to drain energy from the body and fatigue sets in, it is common for people to experience related symptoms, such as shortness of breath.
They may find it difficult to catch their breath or might become winded very quickly from something as simple as walking a short distance or laughing.
African-Americans have a higher risk of developing colon cancer than people from other ethnic backgrounds.
Some factors may increase a person’s risk of developing colon cancer, including:
- a personal history of digestive issues, such as colorectal polyps or IBD
- a family history of polyps or colorectal cancer
- some inherited gene mutations, such as hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC)
- getting older
- having type 2 diabetes
- some ethnic backgrounds, including being African American or Ashkenazi Jewish
It is not possible to prevent cancer in all cases, but making lifestyle changes to eliminate some risk factors may help a person reduce their likelihood of developing colon cancer.
As the American Cancer Society (ACS) note, a diet that is high in red meat or processed meat products increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
These foods include:
- hot dogs
- deli cuts
- luncheon meat
Cooking meats at very high temperatures, such as on the grill or in a broiler or deep fryer, releases carcinogenic chemicals. These chemicals may also increase the risk of a person getting colon cancer, though the relationship between meat cooking methods and cancer is still unclear.
Being overweight or having obesity increases a person’s risk of developing or dying from colon cancer.
According to the ACS, the link between obesity and colorectal cancer also seems to be stronger in men. Losing weight can help reduce the risk.
Being physically inactive increases the risk of developing colon cancer. Staying active by doing even light workouts each day may help reduce this risk.
People who drink heavily or regularly may also be putting themselves at greater risk of colon cancer. Men should limit their drinking to no more than two drinks per day.
People who smoke are more likely to develop or die from colon cancer than those who do not. Smoking cigarettes also increases the risk of many other types of cancer.
Surgery is a common treatment for colon cancer.
Colon cancer is highly treatable and often curable if the diagnosis takes place at an early stage when the cancer is only in the bowel and has not spread to other areas of the body.
Surgery is the most common first-line treatment for colon cancer, and it has a cure rate of about 50 percent.
A surgeon will remove the cancerous growth and any nearby lymph nodes as well as a section of healthy tissue surrounding the growth. They will then reconnect the healthy parts of the bowel.
Many early forms of colon cancer do not require further treatment.
If the cancer is advanced, surgeons may need to remove more of the colon, and if the disease reaches too low into the rectum, the surgeon may remove this part of the large intestine.
Sometimes, doctors recommend chemotherapy to people who may have a higher risk of recurring tumors.
When to see a doctor
In most cases, digestive symptoms do not indicate cancer. However, if the symptoms are unusual, appear more regularly, or steadily get worse, it is best to see a doctor as there is no other way to diagnose these issues.
Even if the underlying cause is not colon cancer, the doctor may be able to identify and diagnose a separate disorder for which they can recommend treatment.
Many people with colon cancer do not show any early symptoms so experiencing symptoms can be a sign that the cancer is growing or spreading. The ACS recommend that men and women with an average risk of colon, or colorectal, cancer begin screening at the age of 45 years. Doctors can diagnose and treat colon cancer in the early stages if a person regularly attends screenings.
Anyone who notices new, unexplained digestive symptoms or is uncertain about their symptoms should see a doctor.
Early screening and diagnosis are crucial in people with colon cancer. When doctors diagnose colon cancer before it spreads, the 5-year relative survival rate is 92 percent. However, survival rates are lower among people who do not get a diagnosis until a later stage.