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Signs Of Colorectal Cancer

Medically reviewed by Kevin Tin, MD, Asma Khapra, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 8, 2023

Life moves at a frenetic pace in the 21st century, and we often think we don’t have time to attend to our various aches and pains. But when it comes to symptoms of colorectal cancer, we need to make the time. Because ignoring these symptoms of colorectal cancer could quite literally be the death of us. 

The main symptoms of colorectal cancer include unexplained weight loss, fatigue and weakness, abdominal cramps, blood in stool, rectal bleeding, and changes in bowel habits.


Weight Loss (without diet / exercise)


Although losing weight without making any significant change in your lifestyle might sound like an amazing gift, sudden weight loss is often a symptom of different kinds of cancer, including colon cancer. For your weight loss to be concerning, you need to lose at least 10 pounds during a 6-month period without making any effort at all to lose weight. 


Fatigue and Weakness 


Fatigue is not simply being tired. It’s being tired, resting, and/or sleeping and then waking up just as tired as you were to start with. And then it’s schlepping yourself along, not understanding why you feel so awful. With all of the stress and juggling involved in day-to-day living, it may be hard to recognize if you are actually suffering from fatigue or if you are just overwhelmed by life.


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Colon Cancer - Symptoms

Colon Cancer - Symptoms

Abdominal Cramps 


How do you know whether your stomach cramps are just a normal part of life, a flare-up of IBS, or a sign of colon cancer? Although abdominal pain could be nothing serious, if it started recently, is severe, and doesn’t go away, it can be a sign of cancer.


Blood in Stool/Rectal Bleeding


A red flag when it comes to colon or rectal cancer is blood in the stool. Your stool might be bright red or have bright red spots, or it may look very dark or black.

If you see bright red blood on the toilet paper after a bowel movement, or red or pink water in the toilet bowl, it could point to rectal bleeding. If this happens, don’t jump to the conclusion that it is just hemorrhoids; rather, get it checked out ASAP.


Change in Bowel Habits 


If you’ve noticed your stool becoming thinner or narrower, and this persists for over a week, you need to seek medical attention. Other worrying signs include

  • You can’t pass gas
  • Your stool contains pus
  • Your stool is white or clay in color
  • You experience a change in the frequency of your bowel movements or sudden urges to have a bowel movement with an inability to control the bowel movement.


Drastic changes in stool consistency; loose, watery stools; diarrhea; or constipation unrelated to another condition can be a symptom of colorectal cancer.


The problem with some of these symptoms is that they are vague and can also be attributed to other diseases like IBS or to being rundown (think fatigue with this one). Another issue is that sometimes people show no symptoms, and by the time they do experience symptoms, the cancer is already at an advanced stage.


Up to 60% of deaths caused by colorectal cancer could have been prevented by people being screened. That’s why it’s critical that people go for regular screening at an appropriate age. The appropriate age depends on race and family history. People who have a family history of colorectal cancer should get screened at 40 or earlier. According to the current guidelines, average risk people should be screened at 45, per the new recommendations from multiple societies. Screening includes non-invasive stool tests and slightly more invasive tests like a colonoscopy. During a colonoscopy, polyps may be discovered and easily removed. Without the colonoscopy, the person would have had no idea that these polyps were developing inside them, and if left untreated, could easily develop into cancer. Colorectal cancer caught early on is highly treatable, so even if the screening does detect signs of cancer, there is hope for a full recovery/remission if the person gets tested when they start to experience symptoms. 


Written by Gila Isaacson

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