Colon (colorectal) cancer begins with polyps within the inner lining of your colon. This type of cancer doesn’t always cause symptoms, especially in the early stages. This is why regular screenings for colon cancer are so important.

In addition to regular colon cancer screenings, you should discuss any possible colon cancer symptoms you’re experiencing with a doctor right away.

Early stages of colon cancer are largely asymptomatic, meaning they cause no symptoms. More advanced cases of colon cancer may cause the following symptoms:

  • Notable changes in bowel habits. You may experience frequent constipation or diarrhea that doesn’t improve. These changes may last longer than a few days in a row. Also, if you tend to pass bowel movements on a regular schedule every day, you might notice that the frequency has changed, or that stools have become narrower.
  • Unable to empty your bowels. Along with constipation and other bowel changes, you may experience frequent urges to go, but never feel like you’ve completely emptied your bowels.
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool. While sometimes seen in cases of severe constipation or hemorrhoids, bleeding from the rectum could also be a sign of a more serious condition like colorectal cancer. In such cases, you might notice your stool has a visible light or dark red coloring, or it may have a tarry appearance from dark blood. You may also see blood on toilet paper after wiping.
  • Chronic abdominal pain or cramps. Abdominal pain is considered a late stage colon cancer symptom. You may feel ongoing pain in your abdominal area, and worsening cramps that may not go away after a bowel movement. Severe bloating may accompany pain in your abdomen, as well as pelvic pain.
  • Nausea and vomiting. As colon cancer spreads, it may lead to bowel obstruction. This can in turn cause nausea and vomiting. In colon cancer, these symptoms may also be attributed to chronic constipation. It’s important to seek immediate medical care if you’ve vomited for more than 24 hours or if you can’t tolerate any fluids.
  • Losing weight without trying. Sudden, unexplained weight loss can be related to numerous medical conditions. In the case of colon cancer, unintentional weight loss may be a sign of later stages of this disease. Such weight loss may also be attributed to the effect of other symptoms, such as abdominal pain, nausea, or diarrhea, on your appetite.
  • Chronic fatigue. You may feel tired all the time, despite getting adequate sleep and not currently going through any stressful life events.

Colorectal cancer remains the third most common type of cancer diagnosed in the United States. Regular colon cancer screenings can help detect polyps early, and your doctor may also be able to remove them during a colonoscopy.

If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms or have any other concerns regarding your colon health, talk with a doctor.

If your doctor rules out colon cancer, it’s possible another underlying condition may be causing your symptoms. These might include:

Colon cancer screening recommendations

For people with an average chance of developing colon cancer, the American College of Physicians recommends screening with one of the following options:

  • a colonoscopy every 10 years
  • a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) or high sensitivity guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) every 2 years
  • flexible sigmoidoscopy every 10 years plus FIT every 2 years
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