It is colorectal cancer awareness month in the United States, and I want to throw some light on colorectal cancer, with emphasis on red flags. The digestive system is made up of your mouth, oesophagus or ‘throat,’ stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum and anus. Your large intestine is also called your colon.
Over the years, we have been greatly influenced by the west in the area of lifestyle and diet, among others. Since we are what we eat and our lifestyle has a significant effect on our health, the disease spectrum in the west is being replicated in our society. Colorectal cancer is now on the rise in Sub Saharan Africa in general. My focus today will be red flags that point toward colorectal cancer, meaning if you notice any of these, you want to see your doctor immediately. These are:
Severe abdominal pains
This is the most common complaint patients have. This is as a result of the change in your bowel habits.
Change in your bowel habits
Everyone has their own unique toilet pattern. Some people poop every day, some poop every two days, some twice a day, everyone knows what works for them. What I want to bring to your attention is a change in your toilet pattern – that’s not good at all. Let me explain: Depending on the location of the cancer, it can grow so big and cover or make your colon passage smaller, thus making it difficult for poo to pass, causing recurrent constipation. Wait first before I give you a heart attack, constipation without any underlying cancer is very common, but what I am saying is that if it comes and goes, comes and goes frequently, you should meet your doctor for further test, because in some patients, this can be the only symptom of their cancer, and we can miss the diagnosis because we thought it was just constipation. Another change in bowel habit can occur when the cancer messes up with the lining of your colon, causing diarrhea with or without bleeding, or passage of bright red blood that coats your stool.
Passing fresh blood in or with your stool
This is not a good thing. Even though there are many causes of passing fresh blood while defecating, we definitely want to rule out colon cancer, hence it is a red flag.
Unexplained or unintentional weight loss
If you are not deliberately losing weight that is going to the gym, or participating in intense physical activity, or you are sure you are not stressed, and your kilos keep dropping and your clothes keep getting loose: this is called unintentional or unexplained weight loss, and it is not a good sign. Please go see your doctor. Although my focus here is colon cancer, a number of things could be wrong.
Generalized weakness and fatigue
This weakness and fatigue is due to your body loosing blood from the cancer. Think of it this way: they grow so fast and bleed slowly into your colon, causing inflammation which makes your body not absorb iron like it should. Over time your blood level gets low, and that’s why you feel weak. If you feel tired and fatigued, please pop into your doctor’s and get a blood test, so that they can know your blood levels, especially in the older ones more than 40 years of age.
Passage of dark tarry stools
Like I said earlier, the cancer bleeds into your colon, your body digests the blood, and it comes out as dark stools. Let me also add that dark stools can also mean you are bleeding from any part of your digestive system, from your oesophagus to colon.
If you notice any of the above mentioned symptoms, please go and see a doctor as quickly as possible. Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll be happy to answer them.