Bowel Movement Changes Can Be a Sign of Colon Cancer

Lasting Changes in Bowel Movements Should Not Be Ignored

Woman sitting on edge of bathtub holding stomach
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Bowel movement changes typically aren't something you'd discuss at the dinner table, but you should get comfortable discussing them with your doctor. Changes in how often you are going to the bathroom, whether you experience constipation or diarrhea regularly, and various other characteristics of your stool are important clues to what's going on inside your digestive tract.

What "changes in bowel movements" means can vary from person to person.

For example, if it is normal for a person to have three bowel movements per day, and he or she is having only one per day, or one every other day, this may signal constipation. On the other hand, another person's typical bowel pattern may be to have a bowel movement every other day. In this case, having one bowel movement per day may be unusually frequent, and it may signal a change in typical bowel habits.

As such, it's a good idea to know what's normal for you. You certainly don't need to keep a detailed record of your bathroom habits, but if you notice a change from what is typical for you, pay attention. If the changes only last a short time, or you know the reason for the change (say, you've been sick or you ate something that doesn't agree with you), you don't need to worry.

When Changes In Bowel Movements Signal Something Serious

On the other hand, if you experience changes in bowel habits that last for more than a few weeks, or if you struggle with chronic constipation, chronic diarrhea, or intermittent constipation or diarrhea, you should make an appointment to see your doctor sooner rather than later.

Changes in bowel habits can have many causes ranging from the not-so-serious to the very serious. You don't want to ignore these changes. If they signal something serious, such as colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, the sooner you get a diagnosis the better. With colon cancer, for example, if diagnosed in the earliest stages, survival rates are well over 90 percent.

If the cancer is more advanced and has spread beyond the colon, survival rates drop dramatically.

In addition to frequency (how often you go), changes in stool color and consistency can signal a problem. Specifically, pay attention to whether your stool is anything other than some shade of brown: Deep red, maroon, black or tarry stools can point to bleeding in the digestive tract; stools that are pale stools, clay-colored or white can indicate a problem in the biliary tract.

Depending on your history and physical, your doctor may schedule a screening exam, such as a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy, to aid in making a diagnosis and recommendations for treatment.

If you notice changes in your bowel habits, waiting to find out why is not a good idea. You may be scared about the possibility of having colon cancer, but finding out now is the best way to take care of yourself and get the medical care you need. In the overwhelming majority of cases, you will find out that you do not have colon cancer and that something far less serious is causing your symptoms.


American Cancer Society. Do I Have Colon Cancer? 

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