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Have Your Bathroom Habits Changed? Colorectal Cancer Symptoms You Should Know

While it’s normal for people to experience changes in their bowel movements from time to time, frequent or persistent discomfort or other symptoms can be a sign of something more serious. This makes it important for people to be aware of their bowel movement patterns, especially when it comes to looking out for colorectal cancer.

If a person notices blood in the stool or toilet bowl, pain during a bowel movement, or other potential signs of colorectal cancer described below, it is important that he or she see a physician promptly for evaluation. In this article, the medical oncologists of Regional Cancer Care Associates (RCCA) review common symptoms of colorectal cancer.

Hologram illustration of colon hovering above hands of surgeon

What Is Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal cancer is a cancer that develops in the colon – also known as the large bowel or large intestine – or in the rectum, which is the last segment of the colon where feces are stored before being expelled through the anus during a bowel movement. Mutations in healthy cells cause them to become cancerous and to grow in a disorder fashion. Untreated, these cancerous cells multiply to form tumors and spread from their point of origin, eventually interfering with the body’s healthy functioning.

Cancerous cells can arise in any area of the body, including the colon and its last section, the rectum. The colon plays a critical role in allowing the body to digest foods properly, and it serves as a pathway for waste to travel to the rectum. It is also responsible for extracting water from waste, which then hardens to become feces.

Polyps are a type of growth that can appear in the colon’s lining. While most are benign growths, some polyps that are benign initially can become cancerous over time. If physicians discover a polyp during colonoscopy, they typically remove it during that procedure and send it for examination by a pathologist.

Colorectal cancer most commonly occurs in older adults. However, some cases can appear in those who are younger. This is especially true if a person has a family history of the disease.

Common Colorectal Cancer Symptoms

In its earliest forms, colorectal cancer may not cause any obvious symptoms. Often, people only are diagnosed after routine screenings, like a colonoscopy. However, cancer can spread and worsen if left untreated. This is when concerning symptoms begin to arise.

Symptoms can vary for each person depending on the location and size of the tumor. However, common signs of colorectal cancer include:

Changes in Bowel Habits

Typical bowel movements can look different for each person. But most people should be having a bowel movement about once a day. Stools usually should have a soft texture and brown color. When a person notices significant and persistent change in the frequency, size, shape, color, or texture of bowel movements, these changes should be brought to a healthcare professional’s attention.

Changes in bowel habits such as diarrhea or constipation are common conditions that arise for many reasons. However, changes that persist for more than one week can be cause for concern. If people are experiencing significant changes in their typical bowel movement patterns, they should consult with their physician as soon as possible.

Frequent Gas or Cramping

Experiencing occasional gas or cramping is normal, but it can become a concern if symptoms are frequent, severe, or persistent over time. Again, people should discuss these symptoms with their physician. /p>

Other symptoms of colorectal cancer include:

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Streaks or blood in the stool, or black or very dark stool
  • A feeling of incomplete voiding after a bowel movement
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Fatigue

In many cases, these symptoms will represent other conditions, from irritable bowel syndrome to hemorrhoids or anal fissures. However, the symptoms should be reported to a physician promptly so that the person can be evaluated and receive the appropriate treatment they need.

Causes of Colorectal Cancer

Several factors can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer. For example, older people are at elevated risk relative to younger people. Many cases are diagnosed in patients who are 50 years of age or older. This is why preventive testing usually begins around age 45.

Other people are at elevated risk because of a family history of colon polyps or colorectal cancer. They may carry a genetic mutations for conditions such as Lynch syndrome, which is associated with increased risk for colorectal cancer and other forms of cancer.

Lifestyle factors such as smoking, not obtaining enough exercise, obesity, and excessive alcohol consumption increase risk for colorectal cancer. Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease can also increase risk.

Screening for Prevention, as Well as for Diagnosis

There are many ways physicians can screen for colon cancer. The most common method is colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is a procedure that employs a thin scope with a camera to visualize the inside of the colon.

The camera allows a physician to gain a clear view of the colon and its tissues. During the exam, the scope is inserted into the rectum and carefully guided to the colon. The physician then inspects the colon for polyps and any signs of cancer.

The procedure can be completed in less than one hour, and patients are given anesthesia or sedation to prevent pain and promote relaxation.

Beyond serving as a screening test, colonoscopy also constitutes preventive care, because physicians often will remove any potentially problematic polyps during the procedure, assuring that those growths cannot become cancerous in later months or years.

Beyond having colonoscopies or other colorectal cancer screenings, people can reduce their risk for the disease by not smoking, reducing their alcohol intake, exercising regularly, and eating a nutritious, healthy, and balanced diet that avoids processed meats and limits or eliminates red meat.

Colon Cancer Treatment

There are many options for treating colon cancer. However, the most common is with surgery. During an operation, surgeons remove the tumor and often sample nearby lymph nodes to evaluate whether the cancer may have spread.

In some cases, particularly when cancer is found in its early stages and is contained at its point of origin, surgery may be the only treatment needed. Often, however, surgery is combined with other types of treatment, including:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Targeted therapy

To determine the best course of action for a specific patient, physicians consider the cancer’s location, extent, and molecular composition, as well as the patient’s overall health.

Visit Regional Cancer Care Associates for Colorectal Cancer Treatment

The expert medical oncologists and hematologists of RCCA provide state-of-the-art treatments and compassionate, comprehensive care for colorectal cancer, other solid tumors, cancers of the blood and blood-forming tissues, and benign hematologic conditions.

With 20 locations across New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and the Washington, D.C., area, RCCA offers convenient care close to home. To learn more about colorectal cancer and its treatment, contact us today or request an appointment.