In its earliest stages, colorectal cancer has few or no symptoms. Therefore, it is extremely important to undergo routine screening tests beginning at age 50. More advanced colorectal cancer can produce changes in bowel habits and bloody stools Table 01. If you experience constipation, diarrhea, or pencil-thin stools for more than 10 days, you should see your doctor. Likewise, blood (bright red or black in appearance) in your stool warrants medical attention, even though it does not necessarily mean that you have cancer. Hemorrhoids or rectal tears might be the culprit. Bowel movements also can become discolored after you eat certain foods, or after you take iron supplements. Abdominal pain, bloating, cramps, and gas are other possible symptoms of colorectal cancer. Loss of appetite and weight loss may occur as well.
Table 1. Signs and Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer
Blood (bright red or black) in stool Weight loss Appetite loss Fatigue Cramps, bloating, gas pains Diarrhea and/or constipation Narrow stools or other changes in bowel habits
Colorectal cancer can strike men and women of all ages, but occurs most frequently in older adults. The number of colorectal cancer cases begins to rise in people starting around age 40, and peaks after age 70. If you have colorectal cancer in your family, or if you have already had colorectal cancer or have adenomatous polyps (a hereditary condition that results in hundreds of polyps in the colon or rectum), your risk goes up, and the age at which the risk begins is earlier. Other bowel conditions such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease increase the likelihood of colorectal cancer.
Lifestyle factors such as diet and activity level play a role in colorectal cancer. A diet high in calories and fat—animal fats in particular—may increase colorectal cancer risk; however, this has been questioned. This conclusion comes from the fact that colorectal cancer is not nearly as common in Asia and in other parts of the world where diets tend to be low in animal fat and high in fiber. Colorectal cancer predominantly affects people in affluent Western nations who typically eat less fiber and more animal fat. Race appears to have no influence. Japanese people who live in the U.S. are more likely to get colorectal cancer than those who live in Japan. A lack of exercise and obesity are also associated with higher rates of colorectal cancer.
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