4 early warning signs of colon cancer you shouldn't ignore


by Baylor Scott & White Health

Feb 29, 2024

When it comes to cancer, early detection can make a world of difference. And colon cancer is no exception. Understanding the early warning signs of colon cancer can help you catch it early and improve your chances of a successful treatment. 

Colon cancer, also called colorectal cancer, is a condition where cancerous cells are found in your large intestine. Not counting some skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society

In its very early stages, colon cancer may not have any symptoms. This is why regular screenings, such as a colonoscopy, are so important. 

However, as the condition progresses, symptoms may appear. It’s important to stay attuned to your body and speak to your doctor if you notice any changes to your digestive health. 

What are the early symptoms of colon cancer? 

It's worth noting that not everyone who experiences these symptoms has colon cancer—they could be related to other digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome. 

But if you do experience any of these symptoms, it's important to talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor may recommend further testing, such as a colonoscopy or a fecal occult blood test, to determine the cause of your symptoms.

1. Changes in bowel habits

You may see changes in your usual bowel patterns, including lasting bouts of diarrhea or constipation, for no apparent reason. There could be a change in the consistency or size of your bowel movements. Some people might also experience a feeling of incomplete bowel movements or the urgency to pass stools even after having emptied their bowel. 

While these changes in bowel habits can be caused by various factors, if they persist or are accompanied by other concerning symptoms like blood in the stool, abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss or fatigue, seek medical attention promptly.

2. Blood in the stool

Blood on toilet paper or in your stool might indicate bleeding from the rectum or lower digestive tract. Talk to your doctor if you see blood after going to the bathroom. 

3. Abdominal pain or cramping

Persistent discomfort or cramps in your abdominal area can be an early symptom of colon cancer. This pain may range from mild discomfort to severe pain and may not correlate with bowel movements. This symptom can occur due to a tumor's pressure on the colon or the surrounding organs, causing discomfort or cramping.

4. Unexplained weight loss

Unexplained weight loss can be an early symptom of colon cancer. You might notice a significant drop in weight without changes in diet or exercise patterns. This weight loss could occur gradually over time and might not have an apparent explanation. Colon cancer can lead to a decrease in appetite or changes in the body's ability to absorb nutrients, contributing to weight loss.

How to lower your risk of developing colon cancer

So, what can be done to lower the risk of colon cancer? The good news is that there are several steps you can take to be proactive in taking care of your gut health. These include:

1. Get regular screenings:

Regular colorectal screenings are one of the best ways to catch colon cancer early. Talk to your doctor about when you should start getting screened and how often you should have follow-up screenings. The current guidelines in the United States recommend starting screening at 45 if you have no risk factors or family history of colon cancer. 

2. Eat a healthy, balanced diet:

A diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can lower your risk of colon cancer. Try to limit your intake of red meat and processed foods.

3. Exercise regularly:

Exercise can help lower your risk of colon cancer, as well as other types of cancer and chronic conditions. Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week.

4. Maintain a healthy weight:

Obesity increases your risk of colon cancer. If you're overweight, talk to your doctor about strategies for losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight.

5. Avoid tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption:

Both tobacco and alcohol can increase your risk of colon cancer. If you smoke or drink heavily, talk to your doctor about ways to quit or cut back.

Know your risk factors for colon cancer

While colon cancer can affect anyone, there are certain risk factors that increase your chances of developing the disease. These include:

  • Family history of colon cancer
  • Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Diet high in red meat and processed foods
  • Obesity

Understanding the early warning signs of colon cancer is important for everyone, but especially for those who are at higher risk for the disease. If you experience any symptoms or have any concerns, don't hesitate to talk to your doctor. 

Take control of your colorectal health today. Find a primary care physician near you.

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