Abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation and fatigue are some of the symptoms of colon cancer.
Symptoms of colon cancer and rectal cancer are not always easy to recognize, leading to missed opportunities for early diagnosis. On the one hand, many people with cancer of the colon or rectum (known as colorectal cancer) do not experience any symptoms until the disease has reached a more advanced stage, where it is more difficult treat.
This is why testing apparently unaffected people is of paramount importance.
The decline in colorectal cancer deaths in recent 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 cancer and rectal cancer is that even when symptoms are present, people with cancer and doctors can both blame other common conditions, such as hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome. . Also, many younger people assume that colorectal cancer only affects older people and are therefore likely to be unaware of the symptoms. While the vast majority of colorectal cancer cases are still seen in older people, rates in men and women under 50 are rising sharply.
A study by the American Cancer Society, published in 2017 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that people born in 1990 had a double risk of colon cancer and a quadruple risk of rectal cancer than that of a woman. person born in 1950. In response to this worrying trend, it is better to access regular screening for people with an average risk of colorectal cancer starting at age 45, rather than at age 50.
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 diarrhoea, constipation or narrowing of the stool (faeces), which lasts for more than a few days.
A feeling of need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by defecation.
Rectal bleeding with bright red blood
Presence of blood in the stools, which can make them look dark.
Abdominal (belly) cramps or pain
Weakness and fatigue
Unintentional weight loss
Although people with colorectal cancer may not experience rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, for many these are the most identifiable signs of the disease.
These symptoms occur when the cancer spreads through the digestive tract. This can happen very slowly, over years, so the presence of blood in the stool may not even be noticeable.
Over time, this continued blood loss can lead to a decrease in the number of red blood cells, a condition called anemia. Blood tests that diagnose anemia can be the first step in diagnosing colon or rectal cancer.
Discuss the symptoms with your doctor
Once you describe the symptoms to your doctor, your doctor will likely give you a physical to determine the cause. They will likely ask you about your medical history and ask if any family members have colorectal cancer, especially your parents, siblings, or children.
Although most people who develop colorectal cancer have no family history of the disease, one in five people have it. In rare cases, genetic mutations passed down through families, such as Lynch syndrome, can make a person extremely vulnerable to colorectal cancer. Your doctor will want to know if you have other health conditions, especially those involving the colon and rectum, that may increase the risk of colorectal cancer. It can be a history of colorectal cancer or precancerous polyps or an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. There is also an association between type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.
Other risk factors include obesity or overweight, low level of physical activity, heavy alcohol consumption and smoking.
A physical examination and blood tests are part of the health check
Once the doctor is aware of your medical history, the next step may be a physical examination of your body which includes gentle pressure on your abdomen to detect any lumps or enlarged organs.
The doctor may also examine your rectum by placing a gloved, lubricated finger inside it to check for any abnormalities.
The doctor may order blood tests to look for changes indicating the presence of colorectal cancer. This is not only a test to see if you are anemic, but also tests that measure liver enzymes and substances called tumor markers.
If you have not seen rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, the doctor may advise you to have a test to identify occult (hidden) blood. These tests, which include a fecal occult blood test and a fecal immunochemical test, involve collecting one or more stool samples at home, packing them in a special container, and returning them to the doctor’s office or laboratory. medical.
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 using a device inserted through the anus: a long, thin, flexible light tube with a tiny video camera attached to it. its end. If the examination reveals any 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 having the exam should clean the colon and rectum. This procedure involves drinking a strong laxative solution. People who have a colonoscopy are usually sedated during the procedure.