6 unusual signs of colon cancer that many people accidentally ignore for years

One of the deadliest cancers can send out strong warning signals to let you know something is wrong.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. You may think it’s a disease of the elderly, but more and more adults in their 20s and 30s are being diagnosed, according to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
Actor Chadwick Bowman was 43 when he died of colon cancer in 2020. He was diagnosed in 2016 and worked “in between countless surgeries and chemotherapy,” according to his family.

Jay Monahan, Katie Couric’s husband, was only 42 when he died of colon cancer in 1998.

Lawrence Meadows, the older brother of TODAY’s Craig Melvin, died at 43 in December 2020, four years after being diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Doctors removed a baseball-sized tumor from his abdomen in October 2016 and found the cancer had already spread.

Doctors say it can be uncomfortable for patients to discuss the symptoms.

“People are sometimes uncomfortable talking about that part of the body,” Dr. Jennifer Inra, a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told TODAY.

“There is awareness in the population, but not enough people are getting screened … people are sometimes nervous about screening tests.”

Colorectal cancer is the third most frequently diagnosed cancer in the United States and the third leading cause of cancer death in American men and women combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While screening has helped reduce the overall number of cases, the obesity epidemic may be contributing to an increase in cases among young adults.

Here are six symptoms you should never ignore:

  1. Bleeding

Probably the most common warning sign is rectal bleeding, says Dr. Alfred Neugut, a medical oncologist and cancer epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. If you notice blood on toilet paper, in the toilet bowl or mixed with feces, talk to your doctor. The blood may be bright red or dark brown.

It is usually more bleeding than that caused by hemorrhoids or a cut in the area, INRA adds.

Many people don’t look at their stool, and that’s very important. It’s important to see what’s going on,” she says.

If you notice blood, don’t ignore it.

“Rectal bleeding is something that, believe it or not, people can ignore for a very long time,” Nagut says. “It can be intermittent, which means the bleeding can start one day, then disappear for a few weeks, then start again. So in between, you’ll think everything is fine.” But that may not be the case.

  1. Iron deficiency anemia.

When colorectal cancer tumors bleed, the body loses iron. People may not know they are losing blood, but a routine blood test will show anemia, which is an insufficient number of healthy red blood cells, Inra says.

  1. abdominal pain.

A tumor can cause a blockage or rupture, leading to cramping and other pain. The type of abdominal discomfort – blunt or sharp – depends.

“Sharp, very tender abdominal pain can mean to us that a perforation has occurred,” notes Inra.

“Pain can be a sign that the situation is not going away. You may also experience nausea, vomiting and abdominal bloating.”

  1. Narrow stools.

Doctors call this a change in stool size. If your stool regularly becomes much thinner than it used to be, it could indicate a tumor in your colon, Inra says. Watch for other changes in bowel habits, such as constipation.

  1. Urges to empty the bowels

An urge is the feeling that you need to empty your bowels, but when you try to do so, the stool won’t pass. This may be caused by a tumor in the rectum, notes Inra.

  1. Unexplained weight loss.

This is always a reason to think about colorectal cancer or any other cancer. You seem to be eating enough, but the disease may be changing the way your body uses food and preventing you from absorbing all the nutrients, the National Cancer Institute notes.

When should you start getting screened?
The American Cancer Society recommends starting screening at age 45 if you have an average risk of developing colorectal cancer, and earlier if you have a family history of the disease or other risk factors. Screening has had a significant impact on reducing the number of colorectal cancer cases, Neugut said.

There are different methods, so talk to your doctor or gastroenterologist.

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