The large intestine, or colon, is about 4 feet long and exists to absorb nutrients from food and break it down. The colon absorbs fluids and electrolytes to concentrate the fecal material. It also stores fecal matter until the body is ready to eliminate it.
Colorectal cancer, or colon cancer, is especially dangerous because of the location of the colon. This type of cancer spreads through the colon wall quickly, invading lymph nodes and organs. The growth of abnormal cells uses up valuable nutrients and space inside the body.
This is the third-most common type of cancer in America for all men and for white women. For American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Hispanic women, it’s the second-most common type of cancer.
Certain lifestyle factors increase the risk of developing colon cancer. Obesity, smoking cigarettes and even using postmenopausal hormone estrogen replacement drugs can be problematic.
Symptoms of Colon Cancer
Any change in the bowel warrants immediate attention from a doctor. Colon cancer presents itself in many ways, depending on the person affected. Rectal bleeding is one of the most common symptoms of colon cancer, but people tend to dismiss it as bleeding hemorrhoids.
Bright red blood in the stool or a tarry or black stool are indications that the colon or rectum is bleeding. Sometimes, blood in the stool is detected with a fecal occult blood test. Often, rectal bleeding is diagnosed only after the person is suffering from anemia.
Because anemia may be the result of ongoing rectal bleeding, having low iron and its related symptoms should trigger tests that detect colon cancer. People with unusual fatigue and unexplained heart palpitations, and who frequently feel cold should have their iron levels tested right away.
Changes in bowel habits that last more than a few weeks also deserve medical attention. If you suffer from chronic diarrhea or constipation, it’s not just diminishing your quality of life. These symptoms may indicate colon cancer and they may cause long-lasting negative effects on the digestive system. Sometimes, alternating constipation and diarrhea are early warning signs of colon cancer, as well.
Unexplained weight loss or certain vitamin deficiencies not caused by diet may be an indicator that the colon can’t properly absorb nutrients. People who struggle with nutrient absorption for any reason have wide varieties of symptoms that range from unpleasant to dangerous. For this reason, unexplained and unwanted weight loss not connected to an increase in activity or dietary changes should be communicated to a medical professional immediately.
Colorectal and colon cancers can grow in the body undetected and without symptoms. For this reason, it’s important to participate in all recommended screenings. Talking with your doctor about risk factors and family history as well as any symptoms you may experience is the key to early detection.
Abdominal pain with colon cancer is a rare symptom. People with colon cancer who experience abdominal pain may have a perforated bowel and/or leaking of the contents of their bowel into their pelvis. This condition causes an infection that may produce vomiting and nausea.
Detecting Colon Cancer Early Saves Lives
There are several tests that may help doctors find and identify abnormal growths and potential problems in the colon or rectum. The American Cancer Society believes that people who are at average risk of colorectal cancer should have certain tests to identify polyps and cancer before the onset of symptoms.
Polyps can be removed with very little trauma to the patient before they become cancerous and before they cause symptoms.
People with an increased risk of colorectal cancer should seek out the advice of a doctor that specializes in the prevention and treatment of this type of cancer. Because colorectal cancer can be prevented by removing polyps if they are found in the pre-cancerous stage, it’s important to build a relationship with a doctor that can offer direction as to which preventative tests are most appropriate for your situation.
If you have symptoms of colon cancer, your doctor may recommend a stool DNA test, CT colonography, double-contrast barium enema or flexible sigmoidoscopy as a way to determine whether you should get a colonoscopy.
Understand Your Risk for Colon Cancer
A crucial part of any cancer screening is a family history assessment. Sometimes, the possibility of a genetic mutation or inherited type of colon cancer can alert doctors to the necessity of early screening for the disease even before the onset of symptoms.
Other factors that are important to consider when evaluating your risk for colon cancer in addition to any family history of the disease, are whether you have Crohn’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, or symptoms of IBS, and risk factors like diabetes.
Family history plays an important part in early diagnosis and treatment of colon cancer. People with a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, child) with a history of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps should talk to a doctor about the importance of early screening.
Our doctors are experts in colon cancer treatment in San Antonio. If you have questions about early diagnosis of colon cancer or concerns about symptoms of colon cancer, please contact our San Antonio office to make an appointment right away.