For colon cancer (and any other type of cancer), early detection is important to allow for swift treatment and the best possible outcome and quality of life. Regular screening can prevent colon cancer by detecting precancerous polyps before symptoms develop. When symptoms do develop, it might indicate that the cancer has already grown or spread. Colon cancer signs and symptoms typically vary from patient to patient. Some symptoms are caused by the presence of a tumor, while others result from cancerous cells spreading to nearby tissues.
Common signs of colon cancer
The most common signs of colorectal cancer are blood on the surface of the rectum and changes in the frequency or consistency of an individual’s bowel habits. Potential colon cancer warning signs include:
- Chronic constipation or diarrhea
- A persistent urge to pass stool
- An inability to completely empty the bowels
- Rectal bleeding
- The formation of thin, ribbon-like stools
- Cramping and bloating in the pelvic or abdominal region
- Unexpected weight loss
- Unexplained fatigue
- Abdominal pain that can occur if a tear develops in the digestive tract, although this is extremely rare
Notably, colon cancer symptoms will vary from one patient to another. Some of the factors that can affect symptom development include the tumor’s size, location and stage.
How colon cancer symptoms differ between men and women
Many people assume that colon cancer produces different symptoms in and men and women, but that’s actually not the case. Men and women experience the same signs and symptoms of colon cancer (those listed above), regardless of their sex.
With that being said, some studies have shown that men are generally less aware of cancer signs and symptoms, and that they’re also less likely to recognize persistent changes in bladder and bowel habits. Because early diagnosis and treatment play such a critical role in improving outcomes and quality of life, it’s important that everyone—regardless of their sex—pay close attention to colon cancer warning signs and promptly report any concerns to their physician.
Stage 4 colon cancer symptoms
Once colon cancer progresses to its most advanced stage, it becomes known as Stage 4 or metastatic colon cancer. Cancer is said to metastasize when it spreads from the area where it originally developed to another area of the body. Stage 4 colon cancer, for example, commonly metastasizes to the liver, lungs, brain, peritoneum and distant lymph nodes.
When cancer metastasizes, not only does it continue producing symptoms in the area in which it originated, but also in the area that it spread to. So, if colon cancer metastasizes to the liver, for example, the person could begin experiencing liver-specific symptoms such as jaundice, extremity swelling, nausea, midsection bloating or fatigue. Or, if the colon cancer metastasizes to the lungs, the person may experience a persistent cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or chest pain.
Colon cancer vs. hemorrhoids
If you’ve noticed bloody stools after using the bathroom, along with pain, discomfort, itching, irritation, swelling and lumps around your anus, you might be concerned that you have colon cancer. While these symptoms are worrisome, these are generally indicative of hemorrhoids, not colon cancer. Hemorrhoids are swollen veins that develop inside or outside the anus and rectum. They occur when the blood vessels surrounding the anal canal become congested. Many people accidentally mistake hemorrhoid symptoms for colon cancer symptoms, so you are not alone if you’ve done this.
When to contact a doctor
If you’re experiencing any colorectal cancer symptoms, it’s important to promptly talk with your doctor. Although diarrhea, bloody stools and other complications are often commonly caused by hemorrhoids or other noncancerous conditions, a physician or oncologist can help you determine the most likely reason for your symptoms. If your physician believes your symptoms might be the result of colorectal cancer, you may be advised to schedule a colonoscopy or other diagnostic tests.
Moffitt Cancer Center's approach to colon cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center offers a complete range of colon cancer screening tests, diagnostics and treatments in a single, convenient location. If you are experiencing colon cancer signs and symptoms, we can perform the necessary testing to determine the cause. Comprehensive treatment is also available if a diagnostic test confirms the presence of colon cancer.
To learn more, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. We’ve disrupted the traditional care model to provide patients with rapid care—connecting them with cancer experts in just one day—so that we can start treatment as soon as possible. No referral is necessary.
American Cancer Society: Do I Have Colorectal Cancer? Signs, Symptoms and Work-Up
BioMed Central: A Review of Sex-Related Differences in Colorectal Cancer Incidence, Screening Uptake, Routes to Diagnosis, Cancer Stage and Survival in the UK