Symptoms of colorectal cancer may not be immediately evident, or may be attributed to other health issues, such as infection, hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease. Still, if a patient is experiencing any of the symptoms associated with cancers of the colon or rectum, he or she should consult with a physician to ensure that cancer is not the culprit.
Many people with colorectal cancer experience no symptoms at all in the earliest stages of the condition. When symptoms do appear, they may vary depending on the size of the tumor or the cancer’s location within the colon or rectum. Some of the symptoms of colorectal cancer include:
- A change in bowel habits that lasts more than a few days, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool
- Bright red or very dark stool coloration, which could indicate the presence of blood
- A feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
- Frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness or cramps
- Unintended weight loss
Could it be hemorrhoids?
Upon seeing blood in their stools, many people assume that they have hemorrhoids, which are swollen veins that develop in or around the anal cavity. There’s a good chance that they could be correct. There are two types of hemorrhoids—internal and external—and external hemorrhoids often cause rectal bleeding as well as pain, itching, irritation and swelling. Internal hemorrhoids can also cause painless bleeding during bowel movements.
If you have bloody stools, it’s important to pay attention to any additional symptoms you may be experiencing. For example, are you having any pain or discomfort in your anal cavity? Do you have any lumps in the area surrounding your anus? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, there’s a good chance that you have hemorrhoids (or another condition) rather than colorectal cancer, since colorectal cancer doesn’t usually cause those signs and symptoms.
Regardless, you should still consult with a trained medical provider to determine exactly what’s causing your symptoms. Once your physician has diagnosed your condition, he or she will be able to recommend a treatment plan that’s tailored to your specific needs. This will help you achieve relief from your symptoms as soon as possible. Plus, because hemorrhoids can cause the same symptoms as other serious conditions—including anal cancer—it’s important to also rule out those other potential causes.
What if you don’t have any symptoms, but you think you’re still at risk?
Early detection of colorectal cancer can make it easier to treat the malignancy. However, as was mentioned above, many individuals with colorectal cancer don’t experience any noticeable signs or symptoms while the malignancy is still in its early stages. So, what can you do to catch colorectal cancer before it progresses and spreads (metastasizes) to another area of the body?
The answer is participating in regular colorectal cancer screenings. Individuals with an average risk of developing colorectal cancer should start screening at age 45, and those at a higher risk should begin even earlier. Some of the risk factors for colorectal cancer include:
- Being obese
- Eating a poor diet
- Having certain other gastrointestinal conditions, such as colon polyps, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis
- Having certain hereditary conditions, such as familial adenomatous polyposis and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome)
- Having a family history of colorectal cancer
One of the most common screening methods for colorectal cancer is a colonoscopy, which involves using a long, flexible tube with a camera attached to examine the colon for any abnormalities. Other screening methods include:
- CT colonography (previously referred to as virtual colonoscopy)
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy
- Guaiac-based fecal occult blood testing (gFOBT)
- Fecal immunochemical testing (FIT)
- A multitargeted stool DNA test combining fecal DNA, FIT and DNA methylation assays (FIT-DNA)
Moffitt Cancer Center’s approach to treating colorectal cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center is well known for our expertise in diagnosing and treating all forms of cancer, including those that affect the colon and rectum. Within our Gastrointestinal Oncology Program, our colorectal experts include surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and other medical professionals who work collaboratively on each patient’s case, meeting weekly to develop and assess the progress of an individualized treatment plan for every person under our care. This unique approach, combined with our robust clinical trials program and research efforts, has led the National Cancer Institute to designate us as a Comprehensive Cancer Center—the only such cancer center based in Florida.
If you or someone you love is interested in learning more about the symptoms of colorectal cancer, call Moffitt Cancer Center at 1-888-663-3488, or fill out our online new patient registration form. When it comes to cancer diagnosis, every day counts, so we’ll connect you with a cancer expert within just one day.