It can be very easy to miss the early warning signs of colon cancer in men because most men, simply put, avoid the doctor. Colon cancer symptoms can sneak up and often go undetected without medical screenings, putting thousands of men at risk.
And it’s not as though most men are simply choosing to ignore the signs or symptoms of colon cancer (1)—many of them are often undetectable, and some can easily be attributed to something else. The signs of a tumor in the colon, for example, can share symptoms of conditions such as hemorrhoids, ulcerative colitis, ulcers, or Crohn’s disease.
As a man moves through the stages of bowel cancer, symptoms often don’t appear until it’s too late. Colorectal cancer grows very slowly and signs of a tumor in the colon may not appear until they have become quite large. Eventually, they will penetrate the bowel wall and potentially lead to bleeding. Sometimes this bleeding isn’t even detectable by the human eye and can only be discovered through fecal lab tests under a microscope.
When the cancer spreads, it usually does so through lymph nodes and may metastasize in distant areas like the liver, brain, and lungs.
In This Article:
The Colon and Men: Catching Cancer Symptoms Early
When it comes to catching symptoms early, it’s important to know the risk factors. Lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise play a role in the likelihood of getting colon cancer, but so does genetics.
Typically most cases aren’t diagnosed until a person is 50 or older, so regular screenings are recommended once you hit this age. Because the warning signs of colon cancer in men can be so difficult to distinguish, these screenings are your best defense.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosis for both women and men in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that the number of new diagnoses for 2018 will be:
- 97,220 new cases of colon cancer.
- 43,030 new cases of rectal cancer.
The lifetime risk for developing colorectal cancer is roughly 1 in 22 for men and 1 in 24 for women. (2)
There are also a few risk factors that play a role in colon cancer, which include:
- Personal history of colon cancer or polyps
- Inheriting a hereditary condition that leads to colon cancer, like familial adenomatous polyposis and Lynch syndrome
- Living a sedentary lifestyle/not getting a lot of exercise
- Eating a low-fiber diet that’s also high in unhealthy fats
- Not eating enough fruits and vegetables
- Being obese
- Having diabetes
- Smoking or drinking excessive alcohol
Below is a list of symptoms that could indicate colon cancer, but remember that nothing is set in stone, as many of these symptoms also apply to other conditions; they might not be signs of bowel cancer in men. Also, this type of cancer often has no signs or symptoms, so the best thing to do is to see your doctor to be sure.
6 Early Warning Signs of Colon Cancer
1. Blood in the Stool
If you notice blood in the toilet bowl or on toilet paper after wiping, it could be an early sign of colon cancer, but this symptom is also a common symptom of conditions such as Crohn’s disease, hemorrhoids, ulcers, or ulcerative colitis.
Rectal bleeding in general (not just in your stool) might indicate colon cancer. If you notice blood stains on your underwear, it could be an early sign of a tumor in the colon, because these bleeding tumors typically mean that they have grown, paving the way for other symptoms to develop.
Regular cancer screenings are very important. Seeing your doctor once per year—or more based on their recommendations—is essential for early detection and greater success in treatment.
2. Bowel Changes
It’s completely normal to have occasional bowel troubles; everybody deals with a bout of diarrhea or constipation from time to time. But if you’re noticing regular irregularities in your bowel habits, it could be a sign of bowel cancer.
Colon cancer affects the entire colon, whereas rectal cancer impacts the lower part of the colon. Lower colon cancer symptoms include frequent diarrhea, constipation, and incontinence; if you can’t go or find that you’re going unexpectedly, it could be a symptom of colon cancer.
3. Excessive Fatigue
Although excessive fatigue isn’t unique to colon cancer, it is a sign that something is wrong and is common in many different types of cancer. If you begin to feel chronically run down and have little to no energy, even if you’re sleeping well, you should visit your doctor.
This fatigue is a result of cancer cells slowly eating away at healthy cells, plus the immune system’s efforts as it battles the cancer.
4. Unexplained Anemia
Anemia is another cause of fatigue and may explain why you’re feeling so beat up, but this condition is rather uncommon in men. When it does happen in men, it could be a colon cancer symptom.
Anemia occurs when there is a shortage of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body, and barring any substantial dietary changes, it’s unlikely to happen. See a doctor if you’re inexplicably fatigued and exhausted all of a sudden.
5. Rapid and Unexplainable Weight Loss
Weight loss can be a positive thing, but if it’s happening without any lifestyle or dietary changes, and at a rather rapid pace, it’s not healthy and could be another symptom of colon cancer.
Track your weight weekly and note any changes, especially if you haven’t changed your diet or activity level. Losing weight, in this instance, is not necessarily a good thing!
6. Bowel Obstruction
A tumor that grows large enough can obstruct the bowel, making it difficult to pass stool. In some cases, it may completely disrupt your ability to pass solid stool. This can lead to extreme abdominal pain as stool backs up in your intestine.
Some additional symptoms of bowel obstruction include:
- Narrow, pencil-like stool
- Distended abdomen
- Recent abdominal pain that is severe and long lasting
More Signs of Colon Cancer in Men
There are number of symptoms that can signify colon cancer. Here are some common symptoms you should pay attention to—if you have a few of them, it’s highly recommended you see your doctor for a full screening.
- Narrower stool than usual
- Feeling like the bowel is not completely empty after a bowel movement
- Bright or dark red blood in stool
- Bleeding from the rectum
- Feeling full if you didn’t eat
- Pain or discomfort in the rectum
- Lump in the abdomen or rectum
- Shortness of breath
- Lost appetite
- Weight loss
- A tear or hole in the intestine
- Frequent urinary tract infections
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Enlarged liver
- Buildup of fluid in the abdomen
- Pain in the abdomen, buttocks, or legs
What Does Colon Cancer Pain Feel Like?
According to diagnosed patients, colon cancer pain can be described as:
- Dull pains in the pelvic area, from the belly button around the right side of the body
- Pain on the right side of the abdomen
- Heaviness in the anus
- Slight pain in the abdomen
- General discomfort
- Food poisoning-like sickness that turns into severe pain
Lowering the Risk of Colon Cancer
There is some indication that various practices can lower the risk of colon cancer.
Once you hit 50, regular screenings for colon cancer are the best way to reduce your risk of succumbing to the disease. Colon cancer, like many diseases, becomes less dangerous the earlier it’s detected, so sticking to a regular screening schedule is highly recommended.
Exercise and activity levels also play a role in the development of colon cancer. Research indicates that men who get more exercise are less likely to develop colon cancer. If you lead a sedentary life, it’s worthwhile to try to get more active—and those benefits extend far beyond lowering the risk of colon cancer.
What you eat can also be a factor in the likelihood of developing colon cancer. The Standard American Diet, full of processed foods, refined sugars, and unhealthy fats, is associated with higher rates of colon cancer. On the other hand, a diet such as the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, legumes, fruits, healthy fats, and lean protein, is associated with a lower risk of colon cancer. Alcohol consumption may also play a role.
Certain foods, like pomegranates, red grapes, pears, mushrooms, soybeans and green peas, may offer additional benefit. Lab tests have shown that compounds in these foods regulate dysfunctional cell autophagy (destruction required to maintain homeostasis), leading to less inflammation and susceptibility to diseases that affect the gut and digestive system.
Vitamin D levels are associated with good health, and there appears to be a correlation between vitamin D and cancer. In order to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D, try to spend time in the sun every day.
Depending on your complexion, you can spend anywhere from about 20 minutes (for fairer skin) to 60 minutes (for darker skin) without sunscreen to absorb enough sunlight to create vitamin D. You can also take vitamin D supplements.
Fight Back Against the Early Warning Signs of Colon Cancer in Men
The symptoms of colon cancer can strike at any time, so it’s best to catch them early, and because they often creep up (or are undetectable), getting regular screenings should be your first line of defense. If you haven’t been screened or haven’t visited your doctor in a while, it’s wise to make an appointment.
The warning signs of colon cancer in men are sneaky and easy to ignore, so do your best to stay on top of them. Pay attention, see a doctor, and give yourself the best chance of avoiding colon cancer.
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