Experts Weigh In On 4 Symptoms That Are Red Flags For Early Diagnosis Of Colorectal Cancer


If you haven’t yet reached the age of 50, yet you’re experiencing certain symptoms like stomach pain, diarrhea, bloody stools, or anemia, you might want to get yourself screened for colorectal cancer.

According to a new study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, having just one of these symptoms is associated with an almost double risk of colorectal cancer, which is usually referred to as just colon cancer, in adults 50 years and below.

As the name suggests, as explained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colorectal cancer ‘is a disease in which cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control. Sometimes it is called colon cancer, for short. The colon is the large intestine or large bowel. The rectum is the passageway that connects the colon to the anus.’

For patients with two of these symptoms, their risk for colon cancer is more than tripled. And for those with at least three of these symptoms, the risk is more than 6 times higher.

Senior study author Yin Cao, ScD, an associate professor of at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a statement, “Colorectal cancer is not simply a disease affecting older people; we want younger adults to be aware of and act on these potentially very telling signs and symptoms — particularly because people under 50 are considered to be at low risk, and they don’t receive routine colorectal cancer screening.”

Who Needs to Be Screened for Colorectal Cancer?

According to a study published by the American Cancer Society in March, just this year, roughly 13 percent of the estimated 153,000 new cases of colon cancer will be diagnosed in people below 50 years old. The analysis found that this was already 9 percent more in the number of cases among younger adults than those diagnosed in 2020.

In order to better recognize the rising cases among younger adults, in 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Tasks Force decided to revise its recommendations to get people to begin testing for colon cancer at the age of 45, rather than waiting until the age of 50.

Due to these earlier screening recommendations and improved treatment options, death rates in older adults from colon cancer have dropped for many decades, explains the American Cancer Society.

However, early-onset colorectal cancer – which means before the age of 45 – is still more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage, which also means lower survival odds. And they explain that this is why it’s incredibly important to pay close attention to any red-flag symptoms.

Regardless, many chose not to get screened because they don’t want to undergo a colonoscopy, which is an invasive procedure that takes advance preparation to do since one must empty their bowels and have general anesthesia throughout the procedure.

Moreover, as shared by the CDC, roughly one-third of adults 50 to 75 years old – a group that has been long advised to get screening, still don’t do so.

Frequently Reported Symptoms Before Colorectal Cancer Diagnosis

In the new study, researchers took a look at insurance data from 113 million adults between the ages of 18 to 64 years in age. They compared the symptoms experienced by 5,075 colon cancer patients up to two years before they got their diagnosis with symptoms over that same time period for similar individuals who didn’t get colon cancer.

What they discovered was that around 1 in 5 people with colorectal cancer felt at least one of the following symptoms, between three months to two years before receiving their colorectal cancer diagnosis. According to the study, the following were the symptoms:

  • Anemia
  • Bloody stools
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain

In addition, about half of those with colon cancer felt these symptoms in the three month prior to their diagnosis.

It’s notable that one limitation to the study is that it used insurance records that were designed for medical billing, which means that they probably lacked more detailed medical information about the patients and their individual cases. Moreover, it’s possible that some people experienced other symptoms that may have been an early warming of colon cancer, however these symptoms weren’t noted in the insurance records.

According to assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City, Peter Liang MD, regardless of the result, it’s still important for people to be aware that colorectal cancer doesn’t only happen to old people.

Dr. Liang says, “Everyone, regardless of age, should recognize that symptoms such as ongoing abdominal pain and rectal bleeding, as well as lab tests showing anemia, could be a sign of colorectal cancer. If you have any of these symptoms, you should talk to a physician.”

Notably, he wasn’t involved in the study.

No Jumping to Conclusions Though

Professor of medicine at the University of California in San Diego, and study co-author, Samir Gupta, MD, says that seeing a doctor won’t necessarily lead to an invasive screening test.

Dr. Gupta says, “In many cases, a patient and doctor may decide that a diagnosis other than colon cancer is the likely cause, and move forward with a diagnosis and treatment plan that does not include colonoscopy.”

Dr. Gupta adds that if the treatment works within a month or two, then additional cancer screening most likely wouldn’t be needed.

“If the original treatment plan is not working, and symptoms persist, then colonoscopy should be strongly considered to rule out colorectal cancer,” Gupta concludes.