There is a culture of silence in our country when it comes to conditions such as colorectal cancer. Unfortunately this silence can kill. Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer, not including skin cancer, among both men and women in the United States. It is estimated that in 2015 there will be over 90,000 new cases of colon cancer and nearly 40,000 of rectal cancer. While discussing these matters may be uncomfortable it is crucial to know more about the risks and the treatments available.
Colon cancer can be prevented with regular screenings. If you’re 50 or older, talk to your doctor about these important tests. The earlier it is detected the easier it is to treat and the higher the overall survival rate. It’s that simple.
Do you know the difference between a sign and symptom?
A sign is an observation that can be made by someone else. Maybe your family member has commented that you’re looking skinny, and not in a healthy way. Or a doctor can observe something a little more hidden that their years of training give them the skills to detect. A symptom, on the other hand, is something an individual feels in regards to the condition that can’t always be observed by someone else.
Common signs and symptoms
Common signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer include:
- Unexplained weight loss: While this is often considered a rare sign of colorectal cancer, it is something to watch out for. Losing weight after a cancer diagnosis is considered normal, but when the weight loss occurs without expectation it can be a sign of a more serious problem.
- Fever: Though often confused with the flu, almost all cancer patients will experience a fever at some time. Usually this is because the cancer treatment has affected the immune system. It also may indicate that the cancer has spread.
- Fatigue: Extreme exhaustion is also a hallmark of cancer. It is only considered fatigue if rest does nothing to stem the tiredness. Sometimes this comes from unnoticed blood loss, which is common for colorectal cancer patients. It is also very common with cancer as it spreads.
- Abdominal or back pain: Pain is also common with many types of cancer. When it comes to colorectal cancer, it presents most often as pain in the abdomen or the lower back. We will address this more in-depth in the section below.
- Skin issues: Obviously skin cancer causes changes in the skin, but other cancers can as well. Signs and symptoms to watch out for include darker looking skin, yellowish skin and eyes, reddened skin, itching, and excessive hair growth.
- Long-term constipation or diarrhea: Very specific to colorectal cancer is the symptom of irregular bowel movements. Constipation happens, but if it occurs too often over an extended period of time it may be a concern. The same is true for otherwise unexplained diarrhea.
- Blood in stool: Dark or black stool or visible blood in the stool is also an indicator that a patient may have colorectal cancer. In fact, if this is apparent it may be imperative to seek medical attention right away. Unfortunately this often goes undetected and untreated.
Pain related to rectal and colon cancer
Pain is a major concern for individuals dealing with the effects of cancer. The pain most commonly associated with colorectal cancer include abdominal and lower back pain. The pain caused by cancer is often localized to the area where the malignant tumor is located. However, for a variety of reasons, cancer pain can be felt in multiple areas of the body even when tumors are not present. The stage of the disease also affects the level of pain a patient feels.
There are two most common pain symptoms when it comes to colorectal cancer:
- Abdominal pain: This pain, when caused by colorectal cancer, can happen because of a tumor or blockage. The pain can present like that of a stomach ache or as cramping.
- Lower back pain: Similarly, if the pain is present in the lower back it can be easily confused with other causes. This pain will often feel like a pulled muscle.
While the cancer itself can cause these painful conditions, they can also be triggered by the treatments. Chemotherapy can cause pain in the abdomen or back as well as cramping and diarrhea. Immunosuppressive drugs and steroids can also cause this type of pain.
How to help spread awareness
This March, you could help save your own life or the lives of others by advocating for colorectal cancer awareness. It was President Bill Clinton who first dedicated March to colon cancer awareness back in 2000. Wearing blue, conducting fundraisers and educational events, and simply talking to others about screening are all ways you can get involved.
The blue star has been adopted as the symbol for colon cancer awareness. The star, combined with the ribbon symbol often associated with awareness organizations, brings to mind the human form.
If you or someone you know has been affected by colorectal cancer, take the month of March to spread awareness within your community. Advocate screening and talk to your loved ones. The American Cancer Society has established a goal to increase the screening rates in the United States to 80% by the year 2018. They believe that this could save more than 7,000 lives a year. You can help by wearing blue, talking to friends and family, and spreading the word on social media.
How has your life been impacted by colorectal cancer and how will you acknowledge Colon Cancer Awareness Month?
Image by Erin Kohlenberg via Flickr