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Sure Signs of Colorectal Cancer to Watch For

Cancer specialist explains what to know about colorectal cancer and signs that indicate you could have it. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Colorectal cancer kills over 50,000 people each year and is the third most common cancer, according to the American Cancer Society which estimates there will be "106,180 new cases of colon cancer and 44,850 new cases of rectal cancer" this year. In addition, the organization states, "Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and in women, and the second most common cause of cancer deaths when numbers for men and women are combined." While that is alarming, the good news is if caught early colorectal cancer can be cured depending on the location. "Cancer of the colon is a highly treatable and often curable disease when localized to the bowel," the National Cancer Institute states. Knowing the signs can be a lifesaver and Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Dr. Sarah Joseph, medical oncologist at Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida who shares symptoms to watch out for and what to know about colorectal cancer. As always, please consult your physician for medical advice. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What Should People Know About Colorectal Cancer?

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Dr. Joseph says, "Colorectal cancer, which includes bowel cancer, colon cancer, or rectal cancer, refers to any cancer that affects the colon and the rectum. Colorectal cancer is the third most common diagnosed cancer in males and the second most common in females. At Miami Cancer Institute, I treat colorectal cancer and many of my patients are under the age of 50 at time of diagnosis. The American Cancer Society in 2020 has average new diagnoses in the U.S. of colorectal cancer to be about 150,000 cases. Of those, about 10 percent are diagnosed before the age of 50. So, that's about a 1-in-10 rate in patients younger than 50. Over the last decade, this trend has been steadily increasing among younger adults. The increase, in part, is related to hereditary colorectal syndromes."


Early Detection is Key

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Dr. Joseph shares, "Screening guidelines have changed now to age 45 for colonoscopy. People at average risk should start getting screened for colorectal cancer at age 45, instead of age 50. When colorectal cancer is diagnosed in its early stages – meaning it hasn't yet spread to the lymph nodes or other areas of the body – more than 90 percent of patients survive at least five years following treatment. For patients whose cancer has metastasized to other organs, though, the five-year relative survival is just under 15 percent."


Who is at Risk?

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According to Dr. Joseph, "Risk factors can be divided into genetic and non-genetic predisposing risk factors. The non-genetics would be obesity, smoking, unhealthy diet — a lot of processed red meats, for example. Smoking plays a huge risk factor in developing colorectal cancer. If we look at the genetic components of increased risk of colorectal cancer, we have genetic predisposing conditions. The biggest ones are called Lynch Syndrome Familial Adenomatous Polyposis. According to the American Cancer Society, "African Americans have the highest colorectal cancer incidence and mortality rates of all racial groups in the United States." Researchers do not fully understand why this population is affected more than others."


Know Your Family History

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"Knowing your family history is crucial," Dr. Joseph emphasizes. "If you have an immediate relative who was diagnosed with colon cancer, it's vital to get screened 10 years earlier than the diagnosis age of the relative. For example, in the case of the late actor Chadwick Boseman, he was diagnosed in 2016 around the age of 39. So, I would tell his family members in the future to be screened at the age of 29 — that's 10 years earlier than 39. So, it's always 10 years earlier than at the age of (colon cancer) diagnosis of your first-degree relative."


How to Reduce the Risk of Colon Cancer

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"You can reduce your risk for colon cancer by not using tobacco, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet low in red and processed meat and rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy," says. 


Signs to Watch Out For

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Dr. Joseph explains the following symptoms to not be ignored. 

–"Change in bowel habits. One of the most common symptoms of colorectal cancer is a change in bowel habits – such as diarrhea or constipation. Also, a common change in bowel stools potentially indicating rectal cancer is narrow stools that do not go away after a few days.

–Rectal bleeding. In addition to a change in bowel habits, the other top symptom of colorectal cancer is blood in the stool.

–Anemia. Anemia is a common manifestation of colorectal cancer.

–Abdominal pain or cramping, frequent gas or bloating.

–Unexplained weight loss.

–Extreme fatigue/weakness."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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