Most people diagnosed with colon cancer won’t mention pain as one of their symptoms. But when they do, how do they describe it? What does the pain caused by colon cancer actually feel like? And, does it tend to occur only in certain locations?
We went to gastrointestinal medical oncologist Benny Johnson, D.O., for insight. Here’s what he shared.
What does colon cancer pain feel like?
Most patients who come to our clinic with pain as a symptom describe it as an intermittent crampy feeling in their abdomen.
But it’s important to note that many of our patients say that they don’t have any pain at all. Instead, they might report an odd sensation of fullness in their abdomen or notice some blood in their stool.
How common is pain as a sign of colon cancer?
Not very. I’d say only about 15% of our patients mention pain as one of their colon cancer symptoms.
Does colon cancer pain always occur in a particular spot?
No. But patients with more advanced colon cancer that has spread to the liver sometimes notice a sense of fullness or bloating in the upper right side of their abdomen.
And, depending on where a tumor is located, it can also cause an obstruction, or a blockage in the colon, which can cause severe pain. Those typically occur on the lower left side of the abdomen.
But again, a lot of our colon cancer patients don’t report pain as a symptom. They just see a little blood on the toilet paper and get referred for a colonoscopy.
To be clear here, are we talking about actual pain or just significant discomfort?
One person’s painful is another person’s uncomfortable. So, there’s a wide spectrum. And it’s very subjective.
Primary tumors located in the colon — and even those that have spread to other organs — can cause real pain. And patients who have a full-blown obstruction can be in a lot of pain. But those who don’t might just experience some mild discomfort or even an occasional crampy feeling.
What other conditions do patients tend to confuse with colon cancer pain?
If you’re experiencing abdominal pain or discomfort for more than a couple of weeks, talk to your doctor and make a plan. Try traditional interventions first to address the most common complaints and see if that resolves them. If not and your symptoms persist, please follow up.
What’s the one thing you want people to know about pain as a symptom of colon cancer?
Colon cancer is not just a diagnosis of the elderly anymore. More and more young people are being diagnosed with colon cancer — even in their late 30s and early 40s. They’re also presenting with more advanced cases of disease. That’s why the recommended age for people’s first colon cancer screening with a colonoscopy was recently lowered from age 50 to 45.
That’s also why it’s so important to be aware of your body. If something doesn’t feel right, see your doctor.
Don’t chalk up your symptoms to something like hemorrhoids or constipation, especially if you’ve also noticed a change in your bowel habits, such as:
more frequent bowel movements
feeling like you’re not emptying your bowels completely
your stool shape or consistency has changed and/or
Even a new, vague sense of discomfort is not unreasonable to investigate since a growing number of people are getting diagnosed with colon cancer at a younger age. So, listen to your body and take your symptoms seriously.