Colon cancer: Signs, risk factors and screening

The first signs of the disease may be difficult to spot.

Another high-profile death at the hands of colon cancer has again brought awareness to the disease and the importance of screening for it.

Movie and television star Kirstie Alley passed away soon after a diagnosis and brief battle with the cancer, once again bringing attention to the risk and prevalence of colon cancer.

Signs and risk factors

While it can be caught at a treatable stage, colon cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer death for men and women combined in the United States.

With many advanced symptoms not appearing until the cancer progresses, it becomes vital that everyone pay close attention to seemingly unassociated symptoms that could potentially be the early signs of colon cancer.

Those symptoms are:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Alternating between constipation and diarrhea, or changes in bowel habits
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in stool
  • Abdominal bloating, cramps or discomfort
  • Feeling of bowels not completely emptying
  • Stools are thinner than usual

Screening recommendations

New colon cancer cases in the United States have been trending younger, with 10.3 percent of all new cases occurring in those under 50.

In a move to respond to this alarming trend, the United States Preventive Services Task Force has amended its recommendation to make a screening more inclusive, lowering the start of the recommended screening age from 50 to 45.

The task force and other cancer organizations recommend a colonoscopy or stool-based test, based on patient preference or physician suggestion.

Additionally, patients may want to discuss with their physician their need to start screening even earlier if they:

  • Have a personal history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps
  • Family history of colorectal cancer
  • Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
  • Confirmed or suspected hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome
  • Personal history of getting radiation treatment to the abdomen or pelvic area for previous cancer treatment