Colon Cancer Symptoms: How to Spot It Early and How to Treat It

March 3, 2021
William Hanner D.O.

Approximately 147,950  (men and women) are diagnosed with colon cancer in the United States each year. It is one of the most common forms of cancer in Americans, and if left untreated, it can be deadly. But it is also a highly treatable cancer if it is diagnosed early. That is why you need to be fully informed about the signs that can indicate you may have a colorectal disease, and use preventative measures such as colorectal screenings and lifestyle changes to lessen your risk of developing colon cancer or help prevent advanced stages of the disease.

Here is how to recognize possible symptoms and what to expect in terms of treatment plans if you are diagnosed with colon cancer.

Know the Symptoms of Colon Cancer

Treatments for colon cancer are most effective when the cancer is caught and addressed in its early stages, which is why obtaining routine screening exams and testing is so important starting at the age of 45. So, it is vital to be aware of the common signs of colorectal cancer and visit your doctor for testing as soon as you are aware of any of these symptoms.

Common Colorectal Cancer Warning Signs

  • Changes in bowel habits that last more than a few days, such as persistent diarrhea, constipation, or narrow stools
  • Blood in stool, which often appears as dark brown or black
  • Rectal bleeding, which shows up as bright red blood
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, pain, cramping or gassiness
  • Fatigue and/or weakness
  • Weight loss that is unexplained or unrelated to diet
  • Feeling as though your bowels are not empty, even after you have had a bowel movement

Risk Factors to Keep in Mind

People are  more likely to experience cancerous polyps in their colon if they have any of the following risk factors in their background:

  • Age over 50 — The majority of people with colon cancer are older, though cases are increasing in younger people too.
  • African-American ethnicity
  • Personal history of colon polyps or cancerous growths
  • Pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other inflammatory conditions
  • Family history of colon cancer
  • Low-fiber, high-fat diet
  • Diet high in red meat consumption
  • A sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Heavy use of alcohol
  • Radiation treatments for previous cancers

There May Be No Obvious Symptoms

In the earliest stages of colon cancer, many people experience NO signs at all. As cancer progresses, the symptoms you experience may vary widely, depending on how large the cancerous growths are and where they are located within the colon.

For this reason, it is essential to have screenings performed on a regular basis. Per the recommendations of the American Cancer Society, this is to start for the average risk adult at the age of 45, whether or not you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above.

Colon cancer treatment options

If you are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, your doctor will discuss your case with you and arrive at a personalized treatment plan, based on your individual situation and the stage of cancer.

Colorectal Cancer Standard Treatments by Stages

Stage 0

At this stage, the cancer has not spread beyond the inner lining of the colon, and surgery to remove the cancerous polyp(s) is the most common treatment to relieve the symptoms. It may also be necessary to remove a small portion of the colon if the growth is too large to remove by colonoscopy.

Stage 1

In stage 1, colon cancer has grown deeper into the layers of the colon, but it still has not spread beyond the colon. The most common treatment is to remove the portion of the colon that is cancerous. Surgery is typically the only treatment needed.

Stage 2

At stage 2, the cancer has spread deeper within the colon tissues but has not reached the lymph nodes. Surgery will be performed to remove the cancerous section of the colon, as well as nearby lymph nodes just in case. Chemotherapy is sometimes recommended if there are other factors: such as signs that the cancer is likely to recur, or aggressiveness within the cancer.

Stage 3

At this stage, colon cancer has spread beyond the colon and into the lymph nodes but has not spread to other parts of the body. Treatment includes surgery to remove the cancerous section of the colon (a partial colectomy), removal of nearby lymph nodes, and chemotherapy. If areas of cancer cannot be entirely removed, radiation therapy will likely be used to address it.

Stage 4

In stage 4, the cancer has spread beyond the colon and surrounding tissues to reach other areas of the body beyond the colon, such as the liver. It may also have spread to the lungs and distant lymph nodes. The most likely treatment will involve chemotherapy.

Targeted drug therapies may also be recommended to address specific issues such as proteins in the body that contribute to certain forms of colon cancer. Whether it is appropriate to use targeted therapies depends on a variety of factors, including your unique genetics. Plan to discuss the pros and cons of these therapies in detail with your doctor.

Surgery is not always curative at this stage, though it may be needed to remove life-threatening colon blockages.

What about Participating in Clinical Trials?

You may be wondering about the possibility of getting the newest drug therapies for colon cancer treatment, which may mean considering joining a clinical trial. Whether a clinical trial is a fit for you or not will depend on your personal diagnosis, the genetics of the cancer, the stage of your cancer, and your willingness to take risks. 

After all, a clinical trial is not a guarantee your condition will improve. You will not know if you are getting the drug under testing, or a placebo. But if you have been diagnosed with late-stage cancer, you may feel it is worth lending yourself to a study that may prove useful for others with colorectal cancer one day. Be sure to talk with your doctor and do your research,  before committing to a clinical study.

Get Compassionate Treatment for Your Colon Issues

Facing colorectal symptoms can feel intimidating, but getting a clear diagnosis and treatment plan that focuses on your personal situation will help put you back on the path to wellness. Our team provides caring, individualized treatment strategies designed to give you back control over your life. We offer consultations in person and through telemedicine to make your care as convenient as possible. If you feel as though you might have any symptoms of a colorectal disorder, contact us to schedule a consultation and gain peace of mind about your health.

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