Colon cancer occurs when cancerous tumors develop in the colon or rectum, making it the third most common type of cancer globally. This life-threatening disease typically starts with small, precancerous polyps that can turn cancerous if left undetected. Screening colonoscopies play a crucial role in identifying these polyps before they become malignant. The good news is that a full recovery from colon cancer is achievable, especially if the disease is caught early and has only spread to the colon wall.
Changes in Bowel Movements
Nearly everyone with colon cancer experiences alterations in their bowel movement patterns. These individuals might start to have frequent episodes of diarrhea or constipation without any discernable cause. Due to the non-specific nature of these sporadic bowel disruptions, these symptoms are often overlooked and dismissed. People may opt to treat them with over-the-counter medications instead of seeking professional medical advice. However, if the issue persists, it’s crucial to consult with a doctor to address any potential underlying concerns.
Unusual Stool Consistency
When an individual develops colon cancer, changes in stool quality often occur. Some may experience long, thin “pencil stool,” which is narrower than normal stool. Additionally, the color of the stool may appear abnormal, sometimes presenting as dark due to bleeding within the digestive tract, or even containing visible blood. These signs are difficult to overlook, particularly if the unusual stool consistency is not an isolated incident but persists over an extended period.
Bleeding from the Rectum
Colon cancer can lead to bleeding within the lower digestive tract, sometimes even occurring in the rectum. When rectal bleeding is present, it typically appears as a separate discharge in the stool. This is more common in individuals experiencing constipation rather than diarrhea as the disease progresses. It’s important to pay attention to any changes in stool color, as black, tar-like stools may indicate bleeding higher up in the colon. On the other hand, bright red blood can signify bleeding occurring lower in the colon or directly from the rectum. As a public health journalist, it’s crucial to be aware of these symptoms and seek medical advice if they arise.
Abdominal Pain and Discomfort
Individuals suffering from colon cancer frequently endure abdominal pain, potentially on a daily basis. The illness may result in sensations of excessive fullness and bloating, regardless of whether they have consumed food or not. Additionally, pelvic pain, stomach cramps, gas, and belching may arise. These symptoms are often mistaken for other conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or frequent indigestion, leading to misdiagnosis.
Nausea and Vomiting Episodes
While not everyone with colon cancer experiences nausea and vomiting, some individuals may encounter abdominal discomfort paired with the urge to vomit. This sensation may or may not lead to an actual physical response of vomiting.
In many instances of colon cancer, individuals experience a loss of appetite, though the exact cause of this reaction remains unclear. It is possible that the discomfort associated with abdominal issues, such as pain, bloating, and gas, may deter people from consuming food, leading them to instinctively eat less. However, in cases where these symptoms are not prevalent, determining the precise reason behind the reduced appetite can be challenging.
Unexpected Weight Loss
Physicians recognize that weight loss related to colon cancer can be attributed to several factors, such as a decreased appetite resulting in insufficient nutrient intake. Cancerous cells divide at a faster pace and demand more calories than healthy cells due to their accelerated growth rate. Additionally, the body expends extra energy and resources in an effort to combat the tumor. This combination of factors can lead to noticeable weight loss in some individuals.
Colon cancer can significantly impact a person’s energy levels. When the immune system goes into overdrive to combat the disease, it leads to increased energy consumption within the body. Cancer cells are particularly energy-intensive, demanding more resources than normal cells. Additionally, fatigue may result from the loss of iron-containing red blood cells due to bleeding in the colon or rectum, which could be microscopic and undetectable to the naked eye. Individuals with colon cancer who do not consume enough food to counterbalance this heightened energy use may experience unexplained weakness, lethargy, and drowsiness.
Colon cancer, particularly in older individuals over the age of 50, often leads to iron-deficiency anemia which can cause a variety of symptoms. These may include weakness and a general feeling of unwellness. In more severe cases, though rare, anemia could also result in cardiac issues, such as heart palpitations and angina.
Breathlessness and Shortness of Breath
Many people with colon cancer often experience shortness of breath, especially in older adults who may also suffer from anemia. This symptom indicates increased pressure on the cardiovascular system, posing a significant health risk. It is crucial to seek prompt medical attention if experiencing shortness of breath.