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To Your Health: Signs and symptoms of colon cancer

Updated: April 27, 2014 6:02AM



Over the past few decades, more people have been surviving colon cancer, and fewer people have been dying from it.

This is thanks to improvements in colon cancer screening and treatment. The earlier colon cancer can be found, the more likely it can be successfully treated.

Colon cancer may cause symptoms that let you know you have a problem and should go to the doctor. Most of the time, these same symptoms are caused by something that isn’t cancer, such as infection, hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease. Still, if you have any of these problems, it’s important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed:

A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days

A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so

Rectal bleeding, dark stools, or blood in the stool (often, though, the stool will look normal)

Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain

Weakness and fatigue

Unintended weight loss

Screening could save your life

Colon cancer is often found after symptoms appear, but most people with early colon cancer don’t have symptoms.

Symptoms usually only appear after the cancer has grown or spread. This is why getting the recommended screening tests before any symptoms develop is so important.

Screening can find growths called polyps that can be removed before they turn into cancer. And screening can find the disease earlier, when it’s likely to be easier to treat.

The American Cancer Society recommends regular colon cancer screening for most people starting at age 50. People with a family history of the disease or other risk factors should talk with their doctor about beginning screening at a younger age.

Several different tests can be used to screen for colon cancer. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Tom Frieden, it’s important to learn about the different types of screening, know your family history and encourage your friends and family to get tested.

“If you haven’t been screened, see your provider about getting screened. It could save your life,” Frieden said.

How do they know if it’s cancer?

If your doctor finds something suspicious during a screening exam, or if you have any of the symptoms associated with colon cancer, your doctor will probably recommend exams and tests to find the cause.

Your doctor may want to take a complete medical history to check for symptoms and risk factors, including your family history. As many as 1 in 5 people who develop colon cancer have other family members — especially parents, brothers and sisters, or children — who’ve had it.

Having other colon problems can also increase risk. This includes precancerous polyps, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and hereditary syndromes such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC), also known as Lynch syndrome. Having Type 2 diabetes can also increase risk.

As part of a physical exam, your doctor will carefully feel your abdomen and also examine the rest of your body. They might also order certain blood tests to help determine if you have colon cancer.

If symptoms or the results of the physical exam or blood tests suggest that colon cancer might be present, your doctor may recommend more tests, such as a colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy or X-ray. If a suspected colon cancer is found by any of the tests, it is usually biopsied during a colonoscopy. In a biopsy, the doctor removes a small piece of tissue with a special instrument passed through the scope.

If you are diagnosed with colon cancer, treatment depends on how early it is found, but may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and targeted therapies.

It’s important for you to be able to talk frankly and openly with your doctor, and if you don’t understand something, to ask questions.



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