Early Symptoms of Bowel Cancer

Bowel cancer

The early symptoms of bowel cancer may be confused with those of colorectal cancer, or of colon cancer. There is a perfectly good reason for that though, and it’s that the three of them are in fact one and the same. Bowel cancer is the second most lethal combined and third most frequent separate cancer in men and women. Though more men are diagnosed with and die from colon cancer than women, the numbers are rather even. In 2010, 67,700 men were diagnosed and 27,073 men died of colorectal cancer, compared to 52,045 and 24,972 women, respectively.

  • Among the common symptoms of bowel cancer are:
  • Changes in bowel habits such as diarrhea or constipation.
  • Changes in the consistency of stool.
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in stool.
  • Narrower or thinner than normal stools.
  • Lingering cramps, gas, pain, and other abdominal discomfort.
  • A sensation that the bowel has not been completely emptied.
  • Weakness or fatigue.
  • Weight loss with no apparent reason.
  • Low red blood cell count (Anemia).

Undoubtedly, the earliest and arguably more important sign of bowel cancer is the growth of clusters of precancerous polyps in the colon or rectum. The colon is the large bowel or intestine, while the rectum is the passageway connecting the colon with the anus. Back to polyps, the keyword here is precancerous. That means that these polyps are non-cancerous, and only turn into cancer when they are left untreated. Even better yet, colorectal polyps can be detected (and eventually removed) with timely screening. Colon cancer screening is all about prevention; in fact, screening is employed to find disease when even early symptoms of bowel cancer have not manifested. Colorectal screening should start as soon as you turn 50, and continue on a regular basis until the age of 75. The frequency of screening depends on the type of test.

  • Every year: High Sensitivity FOBT. This is a stool test used to check for blood in stool; it employs either a chemical known as guaiac or antibodies (fecal immunochemical test).
  • Every 5 years with FOBT every 3 years. Flexible Sigmoidoscopy. The doctor inserts a short, thin, flexible, lighted tube into the rectum and lower 3rd of the colon to check for polyps or cancer.
  • Every 10 years: Colonoscopy. Similar to the preceding test except it uses a longer tube and checks the entire colon. Furthermore, early, small polyps may be removed during the colonoscopy itself; otherwise, a laparoscopy may be required.  

There may be instances in which early screening for people younger than 50 is recommended, for example if:

  • The patient or a close relative have had polyps or bowel cancer.
  • The patient has inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s diseases, or ulcerative colitis.
  • The patient has an inherited genetic condition like familial adenomatous polyposis, attenuated familial adenomatous polyposis (AFAP), Gardner syndrome, Juvenile Polyposis syndrome (JPS), Muir-Torre syndrome, MYH-associated polyposis (MAP), Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS), Turcot syndrome, or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer – also known as Lynch syndrome. 

Conversely, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends against routine screening in individuals aged 76-85, and against screening in individuals older than 85.

Even though colon cancer affects men and women of all races almost equally, there are certain groups that are at an increased risk (in addition to the ones mentioned above). Those groups include:

  • People older than 50 years of age.
  • African-Americans.
  • Obese people.
  • Diabetics.
  • Smokers.
  • Drinkers.
  • People who have been exposed to radiation therapy aimed abdomen as a treatment for previous cancers.
  • People with a low-fiber, high-fat diet.
  • People with sedentary lifestyles.

Regardless of whether or not you fall into any of those categories, see a doctor if you begin to experience bowel cancer symptoms. When symptoms are already present, diagnostic tests are used instead of screening tests. Diagnostic tests include:

  • Biopsy.
  • CT scan.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  • Ultrasound.
  • Chest X-ray.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET scan).

Since anemia is one of the early symptoms of bowel cancer, a complete blood count may be performed to determine the number of red cells in the blood. There may other diagnosis/screening alternatives such as:

·         Double-contrast barium enema.

·         Virtual colonoscopy.

·         Stool DNA test.

However, these tests are not recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, and are seldom covered by most insurance plans. In general terms, no test can be considered better than the others, so which test is selected depends on the patient’s

·         Preferences.

·         Age and medical condition.

·         Type of cancer suspected.

·         Symptoms.

·         Previous test results.

·         Testing and follow-up resources available. 

 Diagnostic tests not only help to establish the cause of symptoms, but are also useful in staging bowel cancer. Colon cancer has five stages which are determined according to the TNM system. TNM stands for:

·         Tumor. Size and location of primary tumor.

·         Node. Whether the tumor has spread to lymph nodes.

·         Metastasis. Whether the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the body.

Depending on those classifications system, colorectal cancer is staged as follows:

·         Stage 0. Also called cancer in situ; cancerous cells are only in the inner lining (mucosa) of the colon or rectum.

·         Stage 1. Cancer has grown through the mucosa but not beyond the colon wall or rectum.

·         Stage 2. Cancer has grown through the wall and/or trough the muscle layers to the abdomen lining but hasn’t spread to surrounding lymph nodes.

·         Stage 3. Cancer has spread to one to four surrounding lymph nodes but has not spread to other near or distant parts of the body.

·         Stage 4. Cancer has spread to one or more distant parts of the body, possibly creating secondary tumors.

Staging bowel cancer helps to determine survival rates. For instance, patients with localized colon cancer have a 70% survival rate, while people whose cancer has spread to distant parts of the body have a survival rate of only 13%. Despite the fact that regular screening remains the best method to prevent bowel cancer, screening rates remain low, with the CDC reporting last year that one out of every three adults between the ages of 50 and 75 has not followed the recommendations of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for colorectal cancer testing. Those who are worried about the costs should be aware that the CDC’s Colorectal Cancer Program offers screening and follow up to uninsured or underinsured, low-income men and women between the ages of 50 and 64, in 25 participating states and four tribes. You can also find out how much your private insurance or Medicare program covers.