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Silent Signs of Colon Cancer

An increase in cases should have you paying attention to your body.
Silent Signs of Colon Cancer

No cancer is good cancer. But there are some that seem more…inconvenient than others.  Colon, or colorectal cancer, is any cancer involving the large intestine and/or rectum, and can be as painful as that sounds. Unfortunately, it is very common, with almost 150,000 new cases diagnosed each year. "In the United States, it remains the second most lethal cancer in men and third most in women," Amir Masoud, MD, a Yale Medicine gastroenterologist, explains to The Remedy. "While the incidence of colorectal cancer has declined in people over the age of 50—thanks to effective screening programs—we are seeing an uptick in new cases involving younger patients."

Usually symptoms do not present themselves until colon cancer is in more advanced stages, although a colonoscopy before it starts to cause symptoms can help. "It is therefore imperative that we are aware of the possible warning signs and seek immediate medical attention if any of these are present," explains Dr. Masoud. 

Here are the signs and symptoms of colon cancer you need to look out for. (Some of them aren't pretty, but essential to know.)

1

Unusual BMs

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  • Diarrhea. "Tumors in the right-colon are likely to bleed and cause diarrhea," explains Dr. Beatriz Amendola of Innovative Cancer Institute in Miami, Fl. She points out that younger patients are more likely to be misdiagnosed for IBS irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 
  • Constipation. "As the tumor grows it can cause the diameter of the colon to become smaller and smaller making it harder to pass stool through the colon," explains Kristina Booth, MD, OU Medicine colorectal surgeon. "This can result in less frequent bowel movements and in some cases narrowing of the stool, too."
  • Thin, Bloody Stools. In addition to constipation and diarrhea, any other changes in stools can be a sign of colon cancer. Steven Reisman, MD, Director of New York Cardiac Diagnostic Center, specifies that narrow or thin stools or those with blood in them (red or black) are things to look out for. "These symptoms can represent a tumor blocking the colon or bleeding into the colon," he explains. 

The Remedy Rx: If you notice any abnormality in your stool—especially blood—you should see a gastroenterologist and arrange a colonoscopy. And if you do receive an IBS diagnosis and your bowel movements don't seem to improve after treatment, go back for a second opinion. 

2

Hard Belly Button Lump

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If you notice any hardness around your belly button, do not ignore it. "A hard knot at the belly button could be a Sister Mary Joseph node," explains Dr. Booth. In addition to being a sign of colon cancer, it could also be a sign of another cancer in the abdomen, that has spread outside the colon.

The Remedy Rx: Since this symptom can imply a variety of cancers, call your physician as soon as you notice hardness at the belly button. 

RELATED: 30 Things Oncologists Do to Prevent Cancer

3

Iron Deficiency and Anemia

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Anemia, or a lack of iron, can be a symptom of colon cancer. "This is due to the gradual loss of blood in the stool," says William Tierney, MD, OU Medicine gastroenterologist. "The bleeding very slow and is not visible in the bowel movement so it is silent but occurs continuously over months to years leading to depletion of the body's iron stores." 

The Remedy Rx: Stay up to date on your blood work. "Iron deficiency in any male and any non-menstruating female warrants a search for blood loss in the gastrointestinal tract and colon cancer is a common cause," Dr. Tierney says. 

4

Unexplained Weight Loss

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If you are losing weight and have no explanation for it, it could be a sign of a variety of different cancers—including colon. If you have any other symptoms—especially a change in stools—you shouldn't ignore the numbers going down on the scale, says Dr. Reisman. 

The Remedy Rx: "Consult a physician for an evaluation for weight loss," instructs Dr. Reisman.

5

Abdominal Cramping or Pain

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If you are feeling discomfort, pain, or cramping in your midsection and it won't seem to go away, you shouldn't ignore it. "If this lasts for a significant amount of time (more than a week) or gets progressively worse it may represent a tumor in the colon," explains Dr. Reisman. 

The Remedy Rx: Pain and cramping in the abdominal region can represent a variety of health issues. Dr. Reisman suggests making an appointment with your gastroenterologist to schedule a colonoscopy to rule out colon cancer.

6

Unexplained Loss of Appetite

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While losing your appetite for no explainable reason could be due to so many health issues or cancer, if it is paired with other colon cancer symptoms—especially changes in bowel habits—it shouldn't be overlooked. 

The Remedy Rx: "One should see a physician to get blood tests and determine if a colonoscopy is warranted," Dr. Reisman urges. 

7

Weakness and Fatigue

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Weakness and fatigue may be a really common part of your day. However, they can be symptoms of iron deficiency anemia, a symptom of colon cancer, reminds Dr. Reisman. 

The Remedy Rx: If you are feeling tired and weak all the time, you should make an appointment with your MD to have blood work done. While anemia in and of itself isn't a huge concern, it could be a symptom of a greater health issue—such as colon cancer. 

8

What to Do if You Experience These Symptoms

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If any of these signs or symptoms are present, it is imperative that you discuss with your primary or seek immediate medical attention. "Your doctor will likely order testing if you have any of the aforementioned complaints but in many cases you will need to have a colonoscopy for further evaluation," explains Dr. Masoud. "This procedure is very safe and represents the mainstay of cancer detection and prevention."

  • Early detection is key. As with most health complications and especially cancer, early detection can be the key to a favorable outcome and eventual successful therapy. "As always, the best protection against cancer is prevention," explains Dr. Masoud. "Non invasive screening tests and colonoscopy have lead to a significant reduction in cancers and related deaths. It is imperative that we follow screening recommendations and do not neglect symptoms or signs that could point to something more going on."
  • A colonoscopy can help. The best way to detect colon cancer early is colonoscopy. "Colonoscopy has been routinely recommended to be done every 10 years starting at age 50," explains Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP. People with other risk factors, such as a first degree relative who had colon cancer, can be screened even earlier. "Colonoscopy is excellent for identifying pre-cancerous polyps, which are small, early growth that haven't become cancer just yet," he says. The gastroenterologist who performs the colonoscopy sees these pre-cancerous polyps and removes them-cancer averted, life-saved. "The problem is that most people decide not to do the colonoscopy because they are afraid of the procedure or they find it inconvenient," he points out.
  • Cologuard is another screening tool. Cologuard is a new test which looks for cancer DNA in your stool, Dr. Mintz points out. "It is easy and convenient, and it is almost (about 90%) as good as colonoscopy," he says. While he doesn't endorse it as the preferred screening method for patients, "it is certainly much better than not doing anything, and thus a reasonable alternative for patients who want to avoid a colonoscopy." And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 70 Things You Should Never Do For Your Health.

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