Nowadays, many people are familiar with the symptoms of cancers such as breast cancer. We all understand the importance of regular self-checking and why it’s essential to visit your family doctor if you spot anything unusual. But the symptoms of colorectal cancer may be less familiar to you, yet knowing the early signs could be critical in diagnosing a problem quickly.
Colorectal cancer accounts for over 8% of cancer cases and nearly 5% of us are likely to be diagnosed with it at some point during our lives. Experts believe that embarrassment could be a major factor in why this cancer is less familiar than others. After all, discussions of body functions such as bowel movements, are not always considered polite. However, if caught early, nearly 90% of patients will survive colorectal cancer, but that figure drops to around 13% if the cancer is not discovered until later.
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What is colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer (also known as colon or bowel cancer), is a cancer that affects the lower intestinal tract, including the rectum. It’s often preceded by the growth of small polyps within the intestines, which can be an early sign that the patient could develop cancer at a later stage.
Who is most at risk?
There are several factors which may affect the likelihood of developing colorectal cancer. A family history can be a significant factor, as can some hereditary conditions. If you suffer from ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease you might also be more likely to develop this form of cancer. Some research shows that lifestyle could have an important impact, so eating a healthy well-balanced diet that’s high in fiber could help prevent colorectal cancer from developing.
What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?
One of the early symptoms of colorectal cancer is the presence of blood in your stools. Other conditions, such as untreated haemorrhoids (piles), can cause blood in your feces, and this is the most common cause of fresh bright red blood. However, darker blood could be a sign that you are developing colorectal cancer. Any sign of blood in your stools should be investigated.
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A change in your bowel habits may also indicate colorectal cancer. If you find you need to go more frequently, or your movements become looser for no apparent reason, this could indicate a problem. Again, there could be other reasons for changes in bowel habits, but any change that isn’t resolved after any few days should be checked.
The presence of mucus in your stools could be another symptom. This is because colon cancer often begins in cells which release mucus and other fluids into your body. Other symptoms can include persistent constipation, narrow stools, the feeling that your bowel is not fully emptied when you ‘go’, stomach pain, and vomiting.
When should I see my family doctor?
If you notice any of these symptoms, and they do not clear up within a few days, you should go and get checked by your family doctor. You may feel embarrassed about your symptoms but it’s important to remember that your doctor will be very familiar with all of these and will not be in the slightest bit worried at discussing things with you. It’s likely that they will perform a physical examination.
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Again, some people find the thought of this worrying, but it’s a common procedure and is not usually painful. It’s certainly better to get any problems checked out at an early stage rather than suffer in silence until things become much more serious. If your doctor has concerns, they will refer you to hospital for further checks.
What if I need further tests?
The hospital is able to carry out further tests to check on the health of your colon. This may include giving you a barium meal, or perhaps a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy in which an internal camera is put inside you to physically examine your colon. These procedures are not painful, although they may be a little uncomfortable, but they give your doctors valuable information about the health of your colon.
Discussing the symptoms of colorectal cancer may feel very uncomfortable, but early detection gives the very best chance of survival. So if you have any concerns at all, visit your doctor as soon as possible. It could be the best decision you ever make.