Bowel cancer can be deadly if caught late. Regular screenings and seeing your doctor ASAP if you recognize any bowel cancer symptoms can save your life.
Bowel cancer (often called colorectal cancer) results when malignant cells form in the tissues of the colon or the rectum. Although it is highly treatable if found early, bowel cancer is too often discovered after it has spread and is then more difficult to cure.
In fact, bowel cancer is now the second leading cause of death from cancer in the U.S., according to the National Cancer Institute. But there is much you can do to protect yourself from becoming a colorectal cancer statistic — including learning how to recognize bowel cancer symptoms.
Bowel cancer symptoms involving bleeding
Colorectal cancer, and pre-cancerous polyps that can turn into bowel cancer, usually don’t cause any symptoms right away. However, bowel cancer often causes bleeding into the digestive tract, which can sometimes change the color of your stools, the American Cancer Society points out.
When this happens, you may notice your stools are consistently darker than normal, or they can be streaked with blood. You may also see blood on toilet paper from bleeding in your rectum.
Over time, internal bleeding caused by bowel cancer can increase, resulting in a low red blood count (anemia), which can make you feel unusually tired. The first symptom of bowel cancer may simply be a low red blood count that shows up on a standard blood test during a health check-up.
Other important symptoms of bowel cancer include:
- A change in your normal bowel habits lasting more than a couple of days — such as unusually narrow stools, diarrhea, or constipation
- Abdominal pain, aches, and cramping that doesn’t go away
- Feeling you have not had a complete bowel movement, even if you just had one
- Unexplained weakness and fatigue
- Losing weight without trying to and with no explanation
Talk to your doctor about bowel cancer symptoms
If you experience symptoms of bowel cancer, don’t panic. Many of these symptoms can be caused by other, non-cancerous conditions. For example, blood in your stool or on toilet paper may be caused by hemorrhoids. Anemia and stomach pain can also have other explanations.
But don’t play guessing games with your health and your future. Any symptoms of possible bowel cancer should not be ignored and should prompt a visit to your doctor, ASAP, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges.
It’s the only way to know what is causing possible bowel cancer symptoms. And, if you do have colorectal cancer or a pre-cancerous polyp, the quicker you are diagnosed, the better chances you have of successful treatment.
Whether or not you have any bowel cancer symptoms, it’s important to talk to your doctor about screening for colorectal cancer. Screening tests include fecal occult blood tests to check for blood in stools, a sigmoidoscopy (a procedure to look inside the rectum and lower colon for signs of cancer or polyps), a virtual colonoscopy (which uses x-rays to make a series of pictures of the inside of the colon), or a colonoscopy — the most thorough way to check the inside of the colon for cancer and polyps via a tube-like, lighted instrument. Bowel cancers almost always start with polyps and, if any of these growths are discovered during a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, they can be removed and biopsied.
Most people should begin screening for colorectal cancer at age 50 – whether do or don’t experience any symptoms of bowel cancer. However, depending on your family history and your personal medical history, you may need to be screened at a younger age. Talk to you doctor about when you should be screened for colorectal cancer and the test that’s right for you.
March 18, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN