This Is the No. 1 Colon Cancer Symptom People Ignore, Doctors Warn
Many people don't realize this is a serious red flag.
Colon cancer is a deadly form of the disease—it's the second leading cause of cancer deaths across all genders—with symptoms that can be sneaky and easy to miss. The Colorectal Cancer Alliance estimates that 52,580 people will die from colon cancer cancer in 2022. Even scarier is that this type of cancer may not cause symptoms at first, so people might not even realize they have it. Read on to find out about one subtle symptom that doctors say many people ignore, and why they say it's a major red flag that you need to get checked for this deadly disease.
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Most colon cancers begin as growths called polyps.
"Colon cancer and rectal cancer are often grouped together because they have many features in common," says the American Cancer Society (ACS), going on to explain that most colorectal cancers begin as a type of growth—known as a polyp—on the inner lining of the rectum and colon.
Not all polyps become cancer, according to the ACS. Polyps can be adenomatous (adenomas are considered pre-cancerous, as they sometimes become cancer); hyperplastic and inflammatory (these are common but generally not pre-cancerous); sessile serrated polyps (SSP) and traditional serrated adenomas (TSA), which are frequently treated as adenomas, as they have a greater risk of colorectal cancer, says the ACS.
Colorectal cancers are on the rise for one age group in particular.
While the risk of colorectal cancer increases as a person gets older, it's on the rise for younger adults. "Since the 1990s, the rate of colorectal cancer (which includes cancers of the colon and rectum) has been rising steadily among adults younger than 50," reports the National Cancer Institute (NCI). More young adults are dying from this type of cancer, as well. "This rapid increase is especially puzzling because the rate of colorectal cancer has plummeted among older adults—largely due to regular colonoscopies and lower rates of smoking," the NCI writes.
Catching the early warning signs of colorectal cancer is crucial, no matter your age, says Eva Shelton, MD, internal medicine physician at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and a content editor for Mochi Health. "Regular screenings—colonoscopy or fecal tests as early as age 45, and younger if there's a strong family history—are recommended to prevent colon cancer," she explains. "It's generally a good idea to check in with your doctor when you have concerns or develop new symptoms."
Many people ignore this symptom of colon cancer.
Your stomach can give you plenty of warning signals when something's not right with your health. Some of these symptoms may include nausea and vomiting, rectal bleeding, indigestion, and various types of pain. Constipation and diarrhea can signify a host of problems—but given that they are so common, they can easily go ignored.
Shelton explains that if cancer affects the way the colon functions, it can cause diarrhea. "The colon absorbs much of the water in digestion and changes waste from liquid to stool, so when this is disturbed, diarrhea can occur," she says.
And although diarrhea can be a sign of colorectal cancer, constipation may be as well. "The colon is also a passageway for the stool to exit the body, and when there is a mass (cancer) obstructing it, then the patient can have constipation," Shelton says.
Know the other symptoms and risk factors for colorectal cancer.
Since issues like diarrhea and constipation (as well as other potential symptoms of cancer, like bloating or indigestion) are common, it's important to know when to call the doctor. "It's generally a good idea to bring these symptoms to a doctor's attention when they are new, recurrent, persistent despite home remedies, and/or with unclear cause," advises Shelton. "There are a few diagnostic tests that they can do determine the cause of their symptoms."
Other risk factors for this disease include certain lifestyle factors like a low-fiber, high-fat diet, and conditions such as inflammatory disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Speak with your doctor about being screened for colon cancer if you are experiencing symptoms that concern you.