So, how do you know when it’s time to see a doctor?
“Any time symptoms persist for longer than two weeks, they are cause for concern,” says gastroenterologist David Richards, M.D. “That’s particularly true if they’re accompanied by abdominal pain, bloody stools or unintentional weight loss.”
Here’s how six of our patients knew they had colorectal cancer, in their own words.
Blood in the stool or toilet bowl
“I experienced bloody stools, bowel changes, and abdominal pains for months,” admits Anatole Karpovs, M.D., a pediatrician from Lake Charles, Louisiana, who was diagnosed in 2013. “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.”
Robert Harris was 76 when he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in early 2019. “I started having dark stools and a little pain in my lower abdomen, so I called my family doctor,” explains the retired army veteran and project manager in the oil and gas industry. “She thought it might be my appendix, since the pain was on my right side, so she brought me in for a check-up. But then she did a digital exam and said there was blood in my stool.”
Courtney Nash, who was 35 when she was diagnosed, had been dealing with chronic diarrhea, frequent stomach aches and other digestive issues for more than 20 years due to ulcerative colitis.
“But after the birth of my second daughter in 2011, my symptoms increased dramatically,” says Courtney, a sugar cane farmer from Harlingen, Texas. “I started dropping weight, losing my hair and even passing blood occasionally.”
Constipation or problems having a bowel movement
“I started having problems going to the bathroom in the fall of 2015,” recalls John Kennedy, a then 48-year-old factory worker from Indiana. “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.”
“I’ve always been easily constipated,” notes Abigail Pardo, who had recently graduated from high school when she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2013. “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.”
Unexplained and unexpected weight loss
“Most people get a bit heavier over the holidays,” says Kenneth Rolston, M.D., a retired MD Anderson infectious diseases specialist who was 66 when he was 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.”
Kenneth finally made an appointment after his wife looked across the dinner table at him one night and said, “You are literally melting away before my eyes. What’s it going to take to get you to go to the doctor?”
Don’t wait to call your doctor if you see any of these symptoms
Colorectal cancer symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating and fatigue are common and non-specific enough that they could be caused by any number of conditions.
But if you experience one or more of the following “alarm symptoms,” consider it a red flag and contact your doctor immediately.
Stools that are black and either loose and sticky or tarry
Unusually severe fatigue (impedes your ability to perform daily activities)
“Things like diarrhea and constipation are so general that they could be due to almost anything,” notes Richards. “None of them necessarily mean that you have colorectal cancer. But if a symptom is persistent, rather than a one-time issue, it should at least warrant a conversation with your doctor.”