Rectal Cancer Symptoms

March is colorectal cancer awareness month and today I wanted to dedicate to symptoms. Specifically, rectal cancer symptoms. Because I did have colorectal cancer but my cancer was in the rectum, not my colon. I know this because when I was first diagnosed I remember asking, “So, this is colon cancer?” because that sounded way better than declaring to everyone I had rectal cancer. It was not in my colon, which my surgeon ever so eloquently and dryly explained to me.

If you look up ‘rectal cancer symptoms’ you will find a list to include:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or more-frequent bowel movements
  • Dark maroon or bright red blood in stool
  • Narrow stool
  • A feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty completely
  • Abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Weakness or fatigue

In fact, colon cancer and rectal cancer treatment can be quite different because the rectum is such a small organ that sits barely removed from other important organs, so this often makes surgery quite difficult. It has been my experience that colon cancer patients seem to have surgery first to remove the tumor, while rectal cancer patients usually undergo treatment first in hopes of shrinking the tumor before going in to remove it. I actually wrote a post about a year about that detailed all my symptoms.

Being diagnosed young had me overlooking all kinds of symptoms just because I never knew. I didn’t know anyone with colorectal cancer (close to me). It was a distant thought in my head. I had heard of colorectal cancer before, isn’t the main symptom blood in stool?? Sure, I knew something was happening but I was also moving across the country, pregnant and postpartum so figuring it out took me a little longer.

The symptoms I experienced in varying degrees were:

  1. Urgency/Constipation – This is one of the symptoms that sticks out the most for me because I definitely remember it to the year prior to diagnosis.  I know it seems odd to have these two sensations together.  Know how when you’re pregnant you have to get up and pee multiple times a night? Well, I had that except it was to poop. I would frequently get up at night and feel urgency to go and then wouldn’t be able to empty my bowels all the way.  
  2. Change in Stool  – Somewhere along the way (I can’t exactly recall) I did notice my stools begin to change shape. They were longer and thinner.  But HELLO, I was constipated, doesn’t that make sense? It’s not like my stools morphed into some seriously weird stuff, they were just a little…different. The change wasn’t alarming to me, I just chalked it up to constipation.  
  3. Weight Loss – I did steadily lose weight but I was also postpartum and breast feeding so the weight was not an alarming symptom at that time in my life. It was also very slow. Slow but steady.
  4. Anemia – In December 2017 I went to a new OB in Florida when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter.  Took them about 1-2 months to call me back and tell me my routine bloodwork showed I was very anemic.  If I recall correctly, my hemoglobin level was at an eight or six, which is extremely low.  Oh, I don’t eat meat I told them! I was put on an iron supplement and my iron levels came up to normal and stayed that way throughout pregnancy.
  5. General Change in Bathroom Habits – I don’t really know how to categorize this one so we’ll leave it at this.  If I really think back I can trace to beginning to notice something being different summer 2017. I felt like I was beginning to deal with more gas, urgency , something was just different. During this time I was also smack in the middle of serious postpartum depression and drinking heavily so I also chalked these changes up to lifestyle at the time.  (Honestly, I could write a book about this period in my life, its very much a hard thing for me to talk about because I am ashamed of it).

In a nutshell, those are the symptoms I can recall experiencing prior to diagnosis. I didn’t realize how serious they were until I was smack dab in the middle of a cancer diagnosis. I had never read anything about colorectal cancer symptoms or known anyone in my life close to me who talked about it. So here I am, talking about it. It happened to me. You are never too young!

Startling Colorectal Cancer Stats You Need to Know

March 1st marks the beginning of Colorectal Cancer Awareness month and in the next few weeks I’ll use this platform to highlight my own experiences as a rectal cancer survivor in hopes that it can somehow help another person out there. Never in my wildest dreams did I think cancer would affect my own life, let alone leave me with a permanent ostomy. Here are the facts about colorectal cancer you need to know:

  • Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death
  • The American Cancer Society has recently lowered its recommended screening age to forty-five years old
  • African Americans, people with family history of colorectal cancer, history of polyps, history of undiagnosed stomach issues should seek colonoscopies much sooner
  • Early screening is key, as this is a slow-growing cancer and regular colonoscopies remove any polyps before they can turn into cancer

Probably the most startling and important fact about colorectal cancer is that it is on the rise. If you find yourself in the millenial category, your risk of rectal cancer is four times greater than people your parent’s age. Read that again: the people getting this cancer are not your parents friends, they are your best friend, your sister, your co-worker. This post isn’t about why that increase is occurring but moreover making sure this disease is no longer defined as something that affects those “fifty and older”.

Millenial’s also need to be aware that colorectal cancer in younger people is often diagnosed at much later stages due to being misdiagnosed or individuals putting off seeking treatment. We will highlight symptoms of colorectal cancer in another post but any changes at all in bathroom habits that aren’t cleared up within a week or so should be brought to your doctor’s attention. Our bodies are good at giving us indicators when something is off, but we have to be mindful and aware of our bodies natural habits. Our lives are busy and hectic but taking a moment to stay in tune with your body could greatly benefit your health.

While we’re on the topic of doctor’s and bodily functions, let’s all take a moment to remember that we’re all adults here (well, most of us…) and that everyone poops. Literally everyone. If you don’t, it will result in serious medical complications. Take this moment to realize that it’s serious to be honest with your medical providers about symptoms, even if you think they are embarrassing. I can assure you, ending up in the emergency room with a rectal exam while in writhing pain is no cakewalk either.

Ways to Lower Your Risk for Colorectal Cancer

While regular colonoscopies and screening will help prevent colorectal cancer, there are actually actions you can take yourself to lower your risk for colorectal cancer:

  1. Get screened at the appropriate time based on your personal risk factors
  2. Eat real food, mostly plants, not too much
  3. Get regular exercise to maintain a healthy weight + immune system
  4. Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol
  5. Take control of your mental health and find a routine that works for you

While we can all say we’ve probably heard the above statements can benefit our health, how many of us have actually put forth the effort to incorporate them into our lives? I think you’d be surprised that doing so will not only lower your risk for colorectal cancer, but greatly improve all factors of your life including but not limited to: better sleep, skin, improved mood etc.

Again, this is not a post to fear monger, but rather to put a buzz into young people’s ears that this is happening. It happened to me. It can happen to you.

Please note that I am not a doctor and any and all medical conditions should always be discussed with your own doctor and that is not google. Power and community is in sharing our experiences and knowledge.