5 Surprising Signs of Colon Cancer

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The standard wisdom about colon cancer is that most people don't experience any symptoms in the early stages of the disease. That's true, in part; it's best to take advantage of all the available methods of colon cancer testing, including having regular colonoscopies after age 50 (earlier if you have extra risk factors, such as a family history of the disease). But according to research -- and to those who've been diagnosed with colon cancer -- there are also some surprising early signs of colon cancer to be aware of.

Colon cancer symptom #1: Bathroom troubles

People diagnosed with colon cancer often look back and realize they'd been struggling with mysterious digestive problems for some time. These issues are embarrassing to talk about, but it's important not to keep this early sign of colorectal cancer to yourself.

How it feels: Like chronic diarrhea, gas, or constipation, or a combination of all three. (Of particular concern are alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation.) You may also notice that it feels like your bowels aren't emptying completely or notice "pencil stools" that are thinner than usual. Many colorectal cancer patients say they received a prior diagnosis of colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, or another bowel condition before they were tested and diagnosed with cancer.

What causes it: Polyps and tumors in the colon and rectum can irritate or narrow the lining of the intestine.

What to do: Any time serious digestive symptoms persist for a week or more, discuss them with your doctor. Diarrhea is particularly concerning because it can lead to severe dehydration and drain your body of nutrients. One rule of thumb: If you have six or more bowel movements a day for several days, it's time to report it.

Weakness and Fatigue

One of the few signs of colorectal cancer that appears early in the progression of the disease is fatigue, weakness, and general malaise.

How it feels: You might feel more tired or weak, or notice that exercise or exertion takes more out of you. You may feel like sleeping more than usual or find it difficult to get out of bed. Some people notice dizziness with exertion, such as when climbing stairs or when they stand up suddenly. You might also notice that you look pale or feel cold easily. In extreme cases, intestinal bleeding can lead to shortness of breath.

What causes it: Large polyps or tumors can bleed into the digestive tract. Over time, the blood loss can lead to iron deficiency anemia and can lower oxygen levels in the blood. Lower sodium levels in the blood due to dehydration can also contribute to fatigue.

What to do: Pay attention to stools for any change of color or sign of blood. (Tip: Look at toilet paper closely after you wipe.) Darkened purplish or black stools can indicate the presence of blood. However, blood loss can occur without any blood being visible. Ask your doctor to perform a fecal occult blood test, which can detect blood that's not visible to the naked eye.

Weight Loss or Poor Appetite

Weight loss that can't be explained by other factors is probably the most common early sign of colon and other digestive cancers.

How it feels: You might not feel like eating as much as you normally do, or you might feel full or "stuffed" more quickly than usual. Rich food may seem less appetizing because you don't feel as hungry. Women: This symptom might feel something like the inability to eat you experienced in late pregnancy. Because you're not trying to lose weight, you might not notice weight loss until you get on a scale or your pants suddenly feel loose.

What causes it: As your intestines become affected by the developing tumor, digestion can slow or back up. When colon cancer spreads to the liver, your body's ability to rid itself of wastes is compromised, leading to severe loss of appetite.

What to do: Because weight loss and loss of appetite can be caused by many other conditions, keep watch on these symptoms for a week or more to see if they go away or if you can detect an underlying cause. If not, ask your doctor about colon cancer testing.

Upset Stomach

One bout of upset stomach is nothing to worry about. Ongoing or repeated bouts of cramping, indigestion, nausea, and vomiting, however, are cause for concern.

How it feels: The upset stomach caused by colon cancer can feel like gas, bloating, and aching, or like sharp stabbing cramps and pain that causes you to double over. "I thought I had ulcers" is a common comment of those diagnosed with colon cancer. Some people experience chronic heartburn or acid stomach.

What causes it: An obstruction in the intestines may lead to indigestion, nausea, and vomiting. Inflammation can lead to cramping and pain. When impaired digestion causes food to back up, the result can be acid indigestion.

What to do: Be careful if your doctor diagnoses acid indigestion or heartburn and sends you home with a prescription for heartburn medication. It's fine to take it for a while, but if symptoms persist, return and ask for additional testing.

Tender Abdomen or Abdominal Pain

Pay attention if it hurts or feels tender when someone touches your abdomen, stomach, or groin; this can be an early sign of a growth in your digestive tract.

How it feels: You might find yourself protesting if someone puts his or her head on your stomach or accidentally bumps you during a sport or activity. The difference between this type of pain and digestive issues is that the pain comes from the outside.

What causes it: Typically, abdominal pain occurs when a tumor has begun to obstruct bowel flow or there's a perforation of the intestine. Abdominal tenderness can also be a sign that the cancer has begun to spread to other organs.

What to do: Wait a few days to see if the pain goes away, as it would when caused by something you ate or by food poisoning. This symptom can also occur with parasites, which the doctor can test for with a stool sample. If the pain or tenderness persists, call your doctor and ask for a full workup.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

10 months, said...

Hello I'am 25 years old I had these symptoms for 6 months but they got worst the last couple months. I have been seeing a lot of doctors and i've been diagnosed with anal fissures or internal hemorrhoids....so yesterday i had a colonoscopy and they found out that i have tumours (i don't know whether they're tumours or polyps) so I'm just curious I can't wait for the results, I want to know if i may be already having cancer!

10 months, said...

My wife was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer the doctors said he got all the cancer out after removing about twelve inches of her colon. Thinking she was cancer free we went home very happy.It took the doctors months to figure out I didn't have gastritis, but stage 4 small colon cancer. she started having terrible pain in her abdomen, and vomiting but no blood in either. I had a general surgeon do surgery and it was supposed to be laparoscopic but ended up being exploratory. They had to remove a foot and a half of her small colon (doing a resection), her appendix, one ovary, and part of the large colon. was on Folfox for 3 months and then Folfirinox for 4 months to try and get ready for surgery and the HIPEC (hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy) procedure. I was just told I am not a good candidate for this surgery because the surgeon did not see enough response with the chemotherapy. Now my oncologist is putting me on Erbitux and a cancer cell blocker. I am nervous because of possible side effects,after a member of my church introduced me to a doctor,which i contacted as fast a possible via email, he gave her his medication which she took as prescribed by him, last two month she was diagnosed colon cancer free, its will be nice if you also contact him via his mail drambermurray@gmail.com,am very sure he can be of help too. I am really happy sharing my story with you

11 months, said...

Just had a endoscopy and feel worse than I did before.

12 months, said...

I'm 52yrs old and have always had bowel problems. The past few months have been horrible. After the pain in between my rib cage, swollen and no appetite, I thought nothing of it! Well two weeks ago, I started to have more pain, swollen over my whole stomach and then the diarrhea for two days nonstop. I went to the ER, that's what I was told I have gastritis and Crohn's disease and the thickening of the Colon ( I was diagnosed with diverticulitis years ago) and thought that was the problem. Fast forward, I'm actually will be starting my colon prep at 4 o'clock, which is in a half an hour and tomorrow I will go in for my colonoscopy and then the other one for my throat. My GI doctor said he's more concerned about the thickening of the colon does anybody have this or know what it means ??? THANK YOU FOR ANY INFOMATION. Sending hugs from Florida

over 1 year, said...

Excellent post. Keep posting such kind of info on your site.Really Surprising Signs of Colon Cancer. Go early, Consult with professional colorectal surgeons in Sydney http://colorectal-surgeon.com.au/

over 1 year, said...

I get sick every time i eat,pain in stomach,colon, fatigue chest pains, shortness of breath, pain arms, ringing in the ears. Any body have theis symptoms

almost 2 years, said...

About 4 months ago I forgot to flush after a BM. About an hour later, back in the bathroom, I discovered my mistake and reached to flush. It was then I noticed my stools looked normal but they were setting in red blood. I watched this over a week -not flushing immediately and checking back- and, always the blood. I also noticed a 'fatty' substance in some of the stool. I went to my GP and reminded him of the pre-cancerous polyp found 2 years prior, for which I was told must be checked again in 'four years'. I voiced my concern about waiting those 2 more years because of this blood. He said, 'I've never seen a polyp turn cancerous that soon (2 years) after discovery but I do an FOBT (fecal Occult Blood Test). It was, his lab said, 'Negative'. Still, because I have had experience with misdiagnosis, I continued my routine of not flushing and checking back for another month. Again, I told my GP. Again, no positive result. Feeling that I was losing credibility with the Doc (it is always deadly when a doctor writes one off as a hypochondriac- I began taking photos of EVERY BM. In two weeks another trip to his office but only the 'Nurse Practitioner' was available. I showed her the pictures; I can assure you, she said, "I've seen plenty of stools and that is not blood." Frankly, I could not have felt more argumentative...but, I waited. For all of the time, between my very first notice of this situation, and, the last visit to see the REAL doctor, I took pictures. Always blood. However, I made sure I began with the pictures I showed the 'Practitioner" and then those taken later; so, the doctor seeing the pictures for the first time, immediately said; "That's definitely blood alright". FOUR months ago, I may have been given the most obvious of 'early signs' I hope incompetence has not taken that 'good fortune/caught it early' gift of life' from me. In two weeks I will have a colonoscopy and I will know. It is going to be a LOOOONG two weeks.

over 2 years, said...

I'm a 19 year old female who smokes cigarettes and is overweight, I've been having these "pencil like stools" for close to a month now and I just went to the walk in clinic today to get some answers. I feel tired all the time, nauseous after I eat, I have a bowel movement around 6-8 times a day: I haven't put much thought into it until the other day when my mother said something. The doctor ordered some tests that I have to do tomorrow.. But should I be concerned about colon cancer? It's been stressing me out since reading the symptoms and I want to know if I'm too young or something ?? Help!!!

over 2 years, said...

My wife's father had colon cancer and I'm worried that she's at a higher risk. And also lately she's had severe gas. Should we be alarmed?

over 2 years, said...

I am currently the sole caregiver for my incredibly stubborn father who experienced all the symptoms outlined in this article and many more for YEARS before getting to the doctor. Actually, the last few years before his rectal cancer diagnosis, be had severe rectsl bleeding, weight loss, INTENSE pain and an extreme loss of appetite. While normal, non-insane people would have surely found an ER at this point....my father began taking entire bottles of Aleve instead to kill the pain which resulted in an eventual collapse into an ICU with ruptured ulcers, peritonitis, sepsis, and multiple organ failure. After nearly dying, he came out of ICU with a diagnosis of stage 4 metastatic rectal cancer, a permanent colostomy and now receives regular chemo which he will have to get the rest of his (very short) life. His refusal to seek treatment has led to this permanent colostomy which prolapses regularly, causing accidents and embarrassment , he has tobuse catheters to pee due to tumor invasion of the prostate and bladder ( it is inoperable) he has to take TONS of opiods to keep the constant pain at bay, he has severe neuropathy from chemo and as a result has to walk with a cane and has trouble even holding his morning coffee! In summary, the ( mostly self-influcted) catastrophic suffering I have watched this man endure has been a horror show, and his eminent demise is sure to be just as bad ( if not worse). YOU DO NOT WANT THIS!!!!! PLEASE.... do yourself and your family a favor and GET SCREENED. If you won't dobit for you, do it for those who love you and will be forced to witness your suffering and endure your illness along side you. While the initial cancer or polyps or whatever, may not have been directly my father fault or preventable by him....the extent and severity to which it progressed was absolutely his doing. Willfully avoiding medical care is costing him his life sadly, and tremendous unnecessary suffering to boot. TRUST ME.... YOU DO NOT WANT IT.

over 2 years, said...

Anonymous Caregiver: "poor PREPARATION" just means that your friend either didn't follow the special cleansing diet or cleansing drink (ugh!) correctly and that there was still fecal matter in the colon. There is also the possibility that your friend was badly constipated before the cleansing diet and therefore wasn't completely cleaned out for the procedure. Either way, I would suggest your friend speak with his/her doctor before rescheduling another colonoscopy to make sure the next one is successful.

over 2 years, said...

one of my friend colonoscopy report showing that "poor PREPARATION:" what is the exactly meaning that..?

over 2 years, said...

I've had sharp pains in my lower abdominal on left side for about 5-6 months, my bowels are never consistent, 90% of the time I vomit when I eat or drink, I've lost over 25 lbs. I frequently feel out of breath. I'm nauseous most of the time. Are these signs of colon cancer? I've not noticed blood in my stools, but dont really know if I know what I'm looking for... Should I go back to my doctor and be more aggressive about my symptoms.

over 2 years, said...

I've had chronic diarrhea for about 3.5 to 4 years. Did a colonoscopy only found polyps, in stomach which removed. Then it has started again with revenge. I take 6 Imodium AD a day, and lately I've been taking flexor for the cramping. Nauseated and vomiting more to.

almost 3 years, said...

I have bowel movement for as many as 20 times a day. I spent most of the time in the bath room. My doctor says I don,t need a colonoscopy as i cannot stand it. Recently I vomitted a lots of blood and I was diagnosed as hematemesis at the q t the local hospital after examining the stomach. Shall I go ahead ask for stool test for colon cancer

almost 3 years, said...

I've had a couple of episodes of cramping, solid stools with bouts of grey matter vomit. I have acid reflux after. I have IBS.

almost 3 years, said...

I have had motions that give me diarrhoea afterwards I feel nauseous. Then I will be constipated and pass very little. When I do pass a motion it seems tight inside my ,anus. I don't know if it would be connected but I find it very difficult most time impossible to reach a climax during sex. I am awaiting a colonoscopy , but would this also find any problem with my lack of climax. Found this site by accident but have found it useful Many Thanks I await your comments Dave