Constipation, bloating, abdominal cramps… who among us has never experienced these symptoms during their lifetime? Although they are generally nonthreatening, these symptoms can be signs of a serious disease, such as colorectal cancer. Learn more about this disease to properly recognize it.
Most people have had digestive problems at one time or another in their life without worrying too much about them. However, constant digestive symptoms can indicate a serious health problem, such as colorectal cancer. Fortunately, early detection of this disease increases chances of recovering from it, so it is important to watch for any unusual symptoms and discuss them with a doctor as soon as possible.
The anatomy of the digestive system
The digestive system is a complex one, stretching from the mouth to the anus. It is composed of several components, each one having a specific role to play in digestion. The colon and rectum are the last two components of the digestive tube.
The colon is about five and a half feet long, and its main role is to reabsorb water from waste from the digestive process to form semi-solid matter known as stool. Stool then passes through the rectum, which measures about six inches, and stays there until it is expulsed during defecation. Colorectal cancer refers to cancer that affects the colon and the rectum.
How colorectal cancer develops
Sometimes, the cells that line the inside of the colon and rectum multiply rapidly and abnormally, forming growths. If these growths are non-cancerous, they are called polyps; in some cases, polyps can become malignant and are then known as tumours. Note, however, that not all polyps become tumours.
If a colorectal tumour remains untreated, it can possibly expand, then cross the intestinal membrane and spread to other organs. This phenomenon is called metastasis.
Colorectal cancer is fairly common in Canada. In fact, it is the third most diagnosed cancer in both men and women. However, it occurs in slightly higher rates in men than in women.
Who is at risk of developing colorectal cancer
There are several risk factors for colorectal cancer, such as:
- being aged 50 or older;
- having a family history of colorectal polyps;
- having an inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease (irritable bowel syndrome is not a risk factor for colorectal cancer);
- having a diet that is low in fibre and rich in red meat and junk food;
- having a family history of colorectal cancer;
- getting little or no exercise;
- being obese;
Someone who has several of these factors is at higher risk of developing colorectal cancer, but it can also occur when there are no obvious risk factors. It is therefore important to watch for any unusual digestive symptom.
Symptoms associated with colorectal cancer
In the first stage of this cancer, patients often don’t have many symptoms. Depending on the size and location of the tumour, various symptoms can appear, including these common ones:
- constipation or diarrhea;
- smaller stools than usual;
- abdominal cramping;
- blood in the stools (either clear or thick and black, depending on where the tumour is located);
- inexplicable weight loss;
- loss of appetite or feeling full;
- nausea and vomiting;
- gas and bloating;
- extreme fatigue.
These symptoms are not exclusive to colorectal cancer; they can be linked to several other conditions. That is why it is important to eliminate other possible causes by undergoing medical examinations before presuming cancer. If you are experiencing unusual or constant digestive symptoms, don’t hesitate to see a doctor.
Preventing colorectal cancer
It has been proven that making changes to one’s diet and lifestyle can reduce the risks of colorectal cancer. Indeed, research has shown that a high-fibre diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables is highly advantageous, while consuming less red meat and alcohol is also a good way to prevent it. In addition, it is advisable to stop smoking and to exercise regularly.
Other elements are currently being studied in order to confirm their benefits. It is too soon, however, to make announcements regarding their effectiveness and safety.
Remember that if you are worried about gastrointestinal symptoms, it is important to discuss them with your doctor. The speed with which colorectal cancer is detected can make a huge difference in terms of how the situation will evolve. You know your body better than anyone; don’t ignore the signs it is sending you!
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