Colorectal Cancer: The Signs and When To Screen

Colorectal cancer is a health risk everyone should be aware of. One man in 21 and one woman in 23 will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetimes.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. The disease will claim more than 49,000 this year.

African-Americans are at a higher risk for colorectal cancer than other populations. And colorectal cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in both Latino men and women.

What You Should Watch For

Colorectal cancer may not show symptoms at first, so regular screening tests are essential. While most colorectal screenings start by age 50, your doctor may want you to get screened much earlier if you have a family history or are in a high-risk population such as Latino and African-American. Talk to your health care professional about your history and risk factors, and when you should get screened.

What Are the Benefits of Screening, and What Screening Options Are Available?

Screening allows for the early detection and removal of polyps in the pre-cancerous stage. Early detection of colorectal cancer allows for an overall five-year survival of 90 percent. Thus early detection can prevent and save lives in 60 to 70 percent of patients.

There are a number screening options available. You should discuss with your primary care provider which option would work best for you.

Is Colonoscopy a Safe Screening Procedure?

Colonoscopy allows for both the detection and removal of polyps at the same time and is a relatively safe procedure when done by a trained physician. Gastroenterologists are specially trained in performing a colonoscopy.

In most cases, with adequate sedation, patients don’t experience any discomfort with the procedure. It’s an outpatient procedure, and you can return to your normal activities the next day.

What Are the Colorectal Cancer’s Symptoms?

In addition to screening, the American Cancer Society recommends that you watch for these symptoms:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days.
  • A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement but you don’t feel relief after having one.
  • Rectal bleeding.
  • Blood in the stool (the blood may make it look dark).
  • Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain.
  • Weakness and fatigue.
  • Unintended weight loss.

Colorectal cancers can bleed into the digestive tract. The blood can sometimes be seen in the stool or make it look darker, but often the stool looks normal. Over time, the blood loss can lead to low red blood cell counts (anemia). Sometimes the first sign of colorectal cancer is a blood test showing a low red blood cell count.

The symptoms we’ve described can be caused by other conditions, such as infection, hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome. So if you notice any of these issues, see your health care professional right away for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

The Role Heredity Plays in Your Risk

A number of risk factors increase the chances for colon cancer. Among them are a family history of colorectal cancer or the presence of adenomatous polyps (the kind of polyps in the colon that can become cancerous). If your parent, sibling or child has been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, you have a higher risk.

It’s a good idea to know about your family medical history. Not just for colorectal cancer, but for a variety of conditions.

My Family Health Portrait Tool

This tool, created by the Surgeon General’s office, allows you to create a family tree and list conditions and diseases known in your family. The tool will help you find out your risks for conditions that run in your family. You can share the information with your health care professional and others in your family.

Your provider can recommend actions you can take to reduce your risk of diseases you may have a higher risk for due to heredity.

Know Your Family History

You may also find local resources to help you access screenings for certain conditions. As an example, in Milwaukee, the “Know Your Family History Program,” sponsored by the Judy Kerns Pence Cancer Fund, works to increase the number of colorectal screenings – and save lives – in the African-American and Latino communities in Milwaukee.

Meet the Author

Nilay Kumar, MD is a Gastroenterologist at Aurora Advanced Healthcare in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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