One of the deadliest cancers can give you loud 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, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found.
Actor Chadwick Bowman was 43 when he died of colon cancer in 2020. He was diagnosed in 2016 and worked “between countless surgeries and chemotherapy,” according to his family.
Katie Couric’s husband Jay Monahan was only 42 when he died of colon cancer in 1998.
Lawrence Meadows, TODAY’s Craig Melvin’s older brother, 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 that the cancer had already spread.
Doctors say it can be awkward for patients to discuss symptoms.
“People are sometimes uncomfortable talking about this part of the body,” Dr. Jennifer Inra, a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told TODAY.
“There is awareness among the population, but not enough people get screened … people sometimes get nervous about screening tests.”
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States and the third leading cause of cancer deaths among American men and women combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although 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 that should never be ignored:
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, tell your doctor. The blood may be bright red or dark maroon in color.
This is usually more significant bleeding than bleeding caused by hemorrhoids or a cut in the area, Inra adds.
A lot of 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 said. “It can be intermittent, meaning the bleeding can start one day, then disappear for a few weeks and then start again. So in between, you’ll think everything is fine.” But that may not be the case.
2. 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 reveal anemia, or an insufficient number of healthy red blood cells, Inra says.
3. abdominal pain.
A tumor can cause a blockage or rupture, leading to cramps and other pain. The type of abdominal discomfort – blunt or sharp – depends on what’s happening.
“A sharp, very tender abdominal pain can mean to us that a perforation has occurred,” Inra noted.
Pain can be a sign that the situation is not going away. You may also experience nausea, vomiting and abdominal bloating.”
4. Narrow stools.
Doctors call this a change in stool caliber. If your stools regularly become much thinner than before, it could indicate a tumor in your colon, Inra says. Watch for other changes in bowel habits, such as constipation.
5. Unproductive urges to empty the bowels
A urge is the feeling that you need to empty your bowels, but when you try to do so, the stool does not pass. This can be caused by a tumor located in the rectum, Inra notes.
6. Unexplained weight loss.
This is always a reason to think about colorectal cancer or any cancer at all. You seem to be eating enough, but the disease can change the way your body uses food and prevent you from absorbing all the nutrients, notes the National Cancer Institute.
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 huge impact in reducing the number of colorectal cancer cases, Neugut said.
There are different methods, so talk to your doctor or gastroenterologist.