Understanding the Symptoms & Risks of Colorectal Cancer

colorectal cancer awareness

In February 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton officially designated March as National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Since then, it has grown to be a rallying point for the colorectal cancer community where thousands of patients, survivors, caregivers and advocates throughout the country join together to spread colorectal cancer awareness by wearing blue, holding fundraising and education events, talking to friends and family about screening and so much more.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer refers to cancer in the colon and/or rectum, or both. The colon is part of the large intestine or large bowel. The rectum is the passageway that connects the colon to the anus. Most colorectal cancers develop first as polyps, which are abnormal growths inside the colon or rectum that may later become cancerous if they are not removed.

Colorectal cancer is very treatable when it is discovered early. Even if it spreads into nearby lymph nodes, surgical treatment followed by chemotherapy is very effective. In the most advanced cases — when the cancer has spread to the liver, lungs, or other sites — treatment can often make surgery an option and can prolong and add to quality of life. Research is constantly being done to learn more and provide hope for people in all colorectal cancer stages.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the US, and the second leading cause of cancer death. It affects men and women of all racial and ethnic groups and is most often found in people 50 years or older. However, incidence in those younger than 50 is on the rise. This disease takes the lives of more than 50,000 people every year.

What risk factors should I be aware of?

The risk of getting colorectal cancer increases as we get older. About 90% of cases occur in people who are 50 years or older. However, incidence in those younger than 50 is on the rise. Other risk factors include having:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
  • A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps
  • A genetic or hereditary syndrome

Lifestyle factors that may contribute to an increased risk of colorectal cancer include:

  • Lack of regular physical activity
  • A diet low in fruit and vegetables
  • A low-fiber and high-fat diet, or a diet high in processed meats
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Tobacco use

What are the symptoms?

Colorectal cancer first develops with few, if any, symptoms. Be proactive and talk to your doctor. Listed below are a few of the most common symptoms:

  • Changes in bowel habits. This includes intermittent or constant diarrhea and/or constipation, a change in the consistency of stool, or more narrow stools than usual.
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort. This includes cramps, gas, pain and/or feeling full, bloated, or a feeling like the bowel is not completely empty. Nausea and/or vomiting can also be a symptom.
  • Rectal bleeding. This simply means the presence of blood in the stool. The blood can be bright red, or the stool may be black and tarry or brick red.
  • Weakness or fatigue. This may be accompanied by anemia or a low red blood cell count.
  • Unexplained weight loss. If you are losing weight for no known reason, or from nausea or vomiting, then it could be a symptom of colorectal cancer.

When should I see a doctor?

Earlier is better.

Since the early signs of cancer often do not include pain, it is important not to wait and see your doctor soon. Remember, early detection can save your life.

When it comes to colorectal cancer, the most common symptom is NO symptom, which is why we call it the silent killer. If you're 50, average risk, get screened. A screening test is used to look for a disease when a person doesn't have symptoms. (When a person has symptoms, diagnostic tests are used to find out the cause of the symptoms.)

Colorectal cancer almost always develops from precancerous polyps (abnormal growths) in the colon or rectum. Screening tests can find precancerous polyps, so that they can be removed before they turn into cancer. Screening tests can also find colorectal cancer early - when treatment works best.

Colorectal cancer symptoms can also be associated with many other health conditions. Only a medical professional can determine the cause of your symptoms.

If you think you are at increased risk for colorectal cancer, speak with your doctor about:

  • When to begin screening
  • Which test is right for you
  • How often to get tested

Millions of people in the United States have not gotten screened as recommended. That number has significantly increased during the past year, due to COVID-19. These individuals are missing the chance to prevent colorectal cancer or find it early, when treatment often leads to a cure.

Summit Medical Group provides a variety of colorectal cancer screening tests and procedures, and most insurance plans (including Medicare) help pay for colorectal cancer screening for people who are 50 years old or older. Colorectal cancer screening tests may even be covered by your health insurance policy without a deductible or co-pay. Check with your insurance plan to find out what benefits are covered for colorectal cancer screening. For more information about Summit's colorectal screening options or to find a primary care physician, visit www.summitmedical.com.