Usually, the stools (poop) of the patients with colon cancer may have the following characteristics:
- Black poop is a red flag for cancer of the bowel. Blood from in the bowel becomes dark red or black and can make poop stools look like tar. Such poop needs to be investigated further.
- Poop which is bright red may be a sign of colon cancer. Red poop may be seen in cancers of the lower intestine.
- The stools as thin as a pencil may also need investigation.
What are the common symptoms of colon cancer?
Typically, symptoms do not show up in the early stages of the disease. Apart from blood in poop or rectal bleeding, patients with colon cancer or rectal cancer may experience other symptoms including:
- Change in bowel habits: Frequent episodes of diarrhea or constipation may indicate problem in the intestine. Sometimes, patients may not be able to empty the bowels or poop may be narrower than usual.
- Abdominal pain or bloating: Stomach bloating, distention, cramps or pain in the abdominal or bowel region can be symptoms of colon or rectal cancer.
- Unexplained weight loss: Sudden loss of weight due to changes in bowel habits is one of the symptoms of colon cancer.
- Loss of appetite and weakness: Unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite for any reason is a cause for concern and needs to be checked.
- Anemia: Frequent loss of blood through anus and poop may make the patient anemic. Any newly diagnosed anemia in a person older than 60 years must be investigated further.
How is colon cancer treated at different stages?
Treatment for colon cancer is based largely on the extent of cancer:
- Stage 0: In this stage, colon cancers have not grown beyond the inner lining of the colon. Surgery is performed to take out the tumor only. In most cases, this can be done by removing the polyp or taking out the area with cancer through colonoscopy (local excision through a diagnostic tube).
- Stage I: In stage I, colon cancers may have grown deeper into the layers of the colon wall, but they have not spread outside the colon wall or into the nearby lymph nodes. If cancer in the polyp is of high grade, more extensive surgery might be recommended. Patient might also be advised to have more surgeries if the polyp cannot be removed completely or if the tumor has seeded to multiple sites locally. Surgery to remove the section of colon that has cancer and nearby lymph nodes is the standard treatment.
- Stage II: In stage II, colon cancers might have grown through the wall of the colon and invaded into nearby tissues, but they may have not spread to the lymph nodes. Surgery to remove the section of the colon containing cancer (partial colectomy) along with nearby lymph nodes may be the only treatment needed. Sometimes, doctor may also recommend adjuvant chemotherapy (chemo after surgery) if cancer has a higher risk of coming back.
- Stage III: In stage III, colon cancers may have spread to nearby lymph nodes, but they have not yet spread to other parts of the body. Surgery to remove the section of the colon with cancer (partial colectomy) along with nearby lymph nodes, followed by adjuvant chemo, is the standard treatment for this stage. Radiation therapy and/or chemo may be options for people who aren’t healthy enough for surgery.
- Stage IV: Stage IV colon cancers may have spread from the colon to distant organs and tissues. Colon cancer most often spreads to the liver, but it can also spread to other organs like the lungs and sometimes brain or to distant lymph nodes. In most cases, surgery is unlikely to cure these cancers. But if there are only a few small areas of cancer spread (metastases) in the liver or lungs and they can be removed along with the colon cancer, surgery may help patient live longer. Chemotherapy is also typically given before and/or after surgery to shrink the size of tumor and slow down the recurrence chances.