After indulging in a festive holiday season filled with delicious treats and hearty meals, it’s not uncommon to experience some digestive discomfort. You know the drill: Bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea, and perhaps even some weight gain. After all, you just came through a season of heavy meals, extra sweets and desserts, and likely more drinking than usual. However, it’s important to be aware that certain symptoms may be more than just a result of overindulgence. Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, can manifest with symptoms that are similar to those experienced after the holiday season. This is what to watch out for, and when to go see your health care provider.
5 Signs of Bowel Cancer That Aren’t Just “Holiday Gut”
One of the reasons why colorectal cancer is so lethal is because it is often not detected early enough. This is because the signs of bowel cancer can often be explained away or thought to be just symptoms of something else, like an indulgent holiday season. Though individual symptoms like bloating may not be a cause for alarm, it is crucial to recognize a combination of several symptoms, along with any other more serious signs. These are the 5 signs of bowel cancer that one should not ignore in the new year. (1, 2)
1. Persistent Changes in Bowel Habits
One of the early warning signs of bowel cancer is a noticeable and persistent change in bowel habits. This could include experiencing diarrhea or constipation that lasts for more than a few weeks. Additionally, if you notice a change in the shape or size of your stool, such as pencil-thin stools or the presence of blood, it is important to seek medical advice promptly. These changes may indicate an underlying issue that needs medical attention.
“I started having dark stools and a little pain in my lower abdomen, so I called my family doctor,” said survivor Robert Harris, diagnosed at age 76. (3)
It is understandable that one might be inclined to ignore symptoms such as a change in color or shape of their stools. After all, many of us simply may have not been paying attention previously. For women, in particular, our bowel habits can range widely throughout the month thanks to our hormonal cycles, making this even more difficult to predict. There are many apps that you can use to track your bowel movements so that you can better understand when something is amiss. These are:
- Pooplog (Android)
- Poop Diary (Android)
- Bowel Mover Pro (iOS)
- PoopMD (both)
2. Unexplained Weight Loss
Weight loss that cannot be attributed to changes in diet or exercise should be taken seriously, especially if it is rapid and unexplained. Unexpected weight loss can be a sign of various health issues, including bowel cancer. If you have unintentionally lost a significant amount of weight without any apparent cause, it is essential to consult with your doctor to determine the underlying cause and rule out any serious conditions.
“Most people get a bit heavier over the holidays,” said Kenneth Rolston, who was 66 when diagnosed. “But I’d been losing weight steadily for about four months by early 2017. And I was not trying to. I was also experiencing fatigue.”
Read: Cancer isn’t to be taken lightly, but another disease kills more people every year.
3. Persistent Abdominal Pain or Discomfort
While occasional stomach discomfort is common, prolonged abdominal pain or discomfort can indicate a more significant problem. Bowel cancer may cause persistent abdominal pain, cramping, or a sense of bloating. It is important to pay attention to the duration and frequency of such pain. If it persists and does not improve with over-the-counter remedies, seeking medical attention is advised.
“I started having problems going to the bathroom in the fall of 2015,” said John Kennedy, diagnosed at age 48. “The constipation went on for two or three weeks, so I did the home remedy thing. I figured I’d eat some greasy foods, and things would just slide right on through. But one day, I literally doubled over with stomach pain so bad that I had to leave work and go to an urgent care clinic.”
This can also go hand-in-hand with the feeling of needing to go, but then not being able to pass anything. This feeling of constipation, like you are bloated and full of you-know-what, but can’t go, is a bad sign. While yes, constipation can be caused by a number of factors, you should go speak with your health care provider sooner rather than later.
4. Fatigue and Weakness
Feeling overly tired, fatigued, or weak without any obvious cause can be a sign of bowel cancer. If you find yourself constantly exhausted, lacking energy, and unable to perform daily activities despite getting adequate rest, it is necessary to discuss this symptom with your healthcare provider. Fatigue can indicate various underlying conditions, and it is crucial to determine the cause to receive appropriate treatment.
“I’ve always been easily constipated,” said Abigail Pardo, diagnosed just after graduating from high school. “So, it didn’t seem that strange to me. But a few months later, I started feeling really out of breath after even the slightest activity, and whenever I lifted something heavy, I’d throw up right afterward. My family told me I looked really pale. Finally, I went to a doctor.”
Read: How to Eat to Reduce Cancer Risk
5. Rectal Bleeding or Blood in Stool
Rectal bleeding or the presence of blood in the stool is a significant symptom that should never be ignored. While it may be alarming, it is important not to panic, as there can be multiple possible causes for rectal bleeding. Nevertheless, it is crucial to consult your doctor promptly, as it could be a symptom of bowel cancer or another serious condition that requires medical attention. For menstruating women, this can be a tough symptom to decipher. Pay attention when you are not on your period – if there is still blood, go and see your doctor. Or, if you are on your period but you think that something doesn’t seem right, go see your GP.
“I experienced bloody stools, bowel changes, and abdominal pains for months,” said Anatole Karpovs, MD. “But as a 37-year-old doctor with a busy practice and a hectic family life, I didn’t have time to be sick. So, I explained away my symptoms or minimized them. It was only later, when they became persistent enough that I couldn’t ignore them, that I finally sought treatment.”
The Bottom Line
In the new year, it’s essential to pay attention to any unusual changes or persistent symptoms that are not typical for you, especially after a holiday season filled with indulgence. While individual symptoms such as bloating or occasional abdominal discomfort may not be alarming, it is important to be aware of the combination of several symptoms along with any other concerning signs. If you experience persistent changes in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, prolonged abdominal pain, fatigue, weakness, or rectal bleeding, seeking medical evaluation is crucial. Remember, early detection plays a significant role in improving outcomes for bowel cancer, so it is always better to be safe and consult with your doctor for appropriate evaluation and guidance.
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- “Do I Have Colorectal Cancer? Signs, Symptoms and Work-Up.” Cancer. ACS Medical Content and News Staff. February 8, 2021
- “Symptoms of bowel cancer.” NHS
- “‘How I knew I had colorectal cancer’: Six survivors share their symptoms.” MD Anderson. Cynthia DeMarco. March 09, 2022