Spotting Early Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer

By RL - June 05, 2020

Colon cancer is a disease that starts anywhere in the colon and affects the lowest part of the digestive system, otherwise referred to as the large intestine. This type of cancer usually starts as benign (or noncancerous) polyps that grow inside of the colon. The colon is the last part of the digestive tract. Gradually, some of these polyps, or clumps of cells, may become cancer cells. This year alone, more than 104,000 new cases of colon cancer cases will be diagnosed in American adults, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Of this number, close to 52,000 will be women and 52,000 cases will be men. According to the Mayo Clinic, the term colon cancer is sometimes referred to as colorectal cancer. The difference between colon cancer and rectal cancer is where the disease actually originates, either in the colon or the rectum.

Colon cancer occurs most often in people over the age of 50, although it can begin at any age. People of African-American origin are at a greater risk of developing the disease, according to Mayo Clinic. Risk factors include eating a low-fiber, high-fat diet. Some research indicates that diets high in red and/or processed meat can be associated with colon cancer. People who are overweight, live a sedentary life with minimal exercise, or live with diabetes are at greater risk, as are smokers and heavy drinkers.

Early monitoring of polyps through regular screening can help prevent cancer. Some early signs and symptoms that the disease has developed include changes in bowel movements that are consistent over time, meaning prolonged periods of diarrhea, constipation, or noticeable change in bowel consistency. Blood in stools or rectal bleeding also needs to be monitored. Mayo Clinic notes that persistent cramps, gas or pain, along with weakness, fatigue, weight loss with no apparent explanation, and a feeling that the bowel is not entirely empty are also signs to watch for. These early symptoms may not show up at all for people in the early stages of the disease. When they do, symptoms vary according to the size of cancer and the location of cancerous cells in the large intestine.

Diagnosis is typically made through tests that examine the colon and rectum. A thorough physical exam is usually completed by a general medical practitioner. This includes checking for signs of the disease, family health history, and the current patient’s health habits. A digital rectal exam involves having a medical worker insert a finger into the rectum to check for lumps or anything else that might appear out of the ordinary. Screening tests include colonoscopies, stool-based tests, and virtual colonoscopies. A colonoscopy is a procedure when a small tube with a light and lens is inserted via the rectum. Virtual colonoscopies include examining 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional x-rays of the colon. A biopsy may be performed so a specialized pathologist can verify for signs of cancerous cells. Blood tests can run numbers on the number of red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and hemoglobin. Repeat screenings are highly recommended and follow-ups are essential when abnormal test results come back.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), this type of cancer remains highly treatment and can be cured. Multiple tests can be performed to check which stage the cancer is in, in other words, how much it has spread throughout the body, if at all. A CT scan involves checking x-ray images either with or without the use of colored dye to see where there may be problematic spots. An MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, also offers a detailed series of pictures and cancerous cells show up brighter in the images. Surgery is the most common treatment choice and there is a 50% full success and cure rate with this option. Advanced stages of the disease might require chemotherapy, radiation, radiofrequency ablation, and cryotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancerous cells and stop them from multiplying. Radiation treatment can damage cells via electromagnetic waves. Radiofrequency ablation uses radio waves to heat up abnormal cells and destroy them. Conversely, cryosurgery involves using extremely cold liquid or a very cold instrument referred to as a cryoprobe to freeze and destroy abnormal cancerous tissue.

Of special interest are the number of new clinical trials underway at the moment to find new types of treatment. Research studies are abundant and qualified scientists are learning more about the disease each and every day. With any medical issue, always be sure to seek information from reliable medical sources and reach out for support from qualified medical professionals. Recognizing the early signs and symptoms of colon cancer is helpful. Researching evidence-based treatments and consulting with a medical advisor is always the safest bet. This article is intended for information purposes alone.


American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)

Mayo Clinic

Livestrong Foundation

National Cancer Institute

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

World Health Organization (WHO)