10 Stomach Symptoms That Can Signal Cancer, COVID-19 Or Serious Disease

10 Stomach Symptoms That Can Signal Cancer, COVID-19 Or Serious Disease

It’s not unusual to have an upset stomach after eating a spicy meal or feeling queasy when you have a stomach bug. However, there is cause for concern when the stomach grumbling that lasts for a few days turns into intense pain that lasts for weeks.

Symptoms within the gastrointestinal (GI) system, which includes the stomach, colon, rectum, and anus, are key indicators of serious conditions, such as COVID-19, cancer, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis.

Distinguishing one illness from another is not always simple because some GI conditions share the same symptoms. So, a visit to your doctor’s office may be necessary to determine whether the persistent symptoms are signals of something serious.

Medical professionals say they are seeing—and finding hard to explain—a rise in the number of cases of colorectal cancer among adults under 50 years old. Colorectal cancer is now the leading cause of cancer death in men and the second in women under 50, according to the American Cancer Society.

If that isn’t enough, one study found that between 1999 and 2020, the rate of colorectal cancers grew 500 percent among children ages 10 to 14, 333 percent among teens aged 15 to 19, and 185 percent among young adults ages 20 to 24.

Colorectal cancer starts in the colon or the rectum. These cancers are also known as colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where they start.

Dr. Mark Lewis, a gastrointestinal oncologist in Utah, said in 2020, he and his son were watching the Marvel movie, “Black Panther,” when a friend called to tell him that Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played the movie’s superhero, died of Stage 3 colon cancer. Boseman, 43, died on August 28, 2020.

“It was hard to imagine that he was in anything other than perfect health,” Dr. Lewis wrote in an opinion article for The Salt Lake Tribune. “And yet there was a part of me that could make sense of this cognitive dissonance because, in my professional life, I had been taking care of younger and younger patients with the same cancer type.”

Besides genetics or family history, scientists and medical professionals are not sure what is causing these aggressive cancer cases among younger people.

“Why are these otherwise healthy young people in the prime of their lives developing cancer and often very advanced stages of cancer?” a question Dr. Kimmie Ng, the founding director of the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center and co-director of the Colon and Rectal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber, posed during The Excerpt podcast. “And I think… this really is going to be pointing back to some environmental change that’s happened recently that is likely contributing to why this is happening.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, a bacteria in gum disease (Fusobacterium nucleatum) has been found in some colorectal cancer tumors. However, it’s unclear how much of a role, if any, the bacteria play in causing the tumors to grow. A study from the Minnesota Colon Cancer Screening Trial found that people with advanced adenomas were at a significantly higher risk of developing colorectal cancer compared to people without adenomas. An adenoma is also known as a polyp, which is usually found during a colonoscopy.

Pay Attention To These 10 GI-Related Symptoms

The following are 10 GI symptoms that may signal colorectal cancer, COVID-19, or other serious GI-related diseases:

1. Abdominal Pain

It’s time to see a doctor if the pain becomes intense and persists off and on for a few weeks or longer.

2. Severe stomach cramps

Severe stomach cramps are a classic symptom of irritable bowel syndrome, a chronic digestive disorder that has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic. Severe cramping is also a warning sign of a bowel obstruction—a serious condition that requires immediate medical treatment.

3. Change in bowel habits

A significant change in bowel movement frequency, whether more or less often, could indicate a problem.

4. Urgent bowel movements

You should see a healthcare provider if you have urgent bowel movements regularly or are not able to hold back the bowel movement before reaching the bathroom.

5. Chronic diarrhea

Diarrhea, a loose or watery stool, usually clears up in a few days. However, chronic diarrhea is also a warning sign of COVID-19 and can occur before a cough, fever, and other well-known symptoms.

6. Chronic constipation

It is not unusual to experience occasional constipation. However, frequent constipation, or constipation alternating with diarrhea, are reasons to see a doctor.

7. Blood in your stool

Blood in your stool can be one of the first symptoms of colon cancer, especially if a change in your bowel habits or the shape of your stool accompanies it.

8. Mucus in stool

Seeing mucus in your stool regularly and experiencing pain is a cause for concern.

9. Unexplained weight loss

Unintentional weight loss could be a sign of a severe illness, including cancer, Dr. Christine Lee, a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told AARP. Dr. Lee advises seeing a doctor if you have dropped five percent or more of your body weight within six to 12 months and if your weight is accompanied by abdominal pain, loss of appetite, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.

10. Nausea or vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are among the most frequently reported GI symptoms. Those who frequently feel nauseous—with or without vomiting—should schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider.  

Keeping Your GI System on Track

There’s a lot you can do to keep your bowel health in check, Dr. Ursina Teitelbaum, a medical oncologist and section chief for gastrointestinal cancers at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, told HuffPost. To maintain bowel health, here are five practices Teitelbaum says to avoid:

  • Never ignore your family history of colorectal cancer.
  • Do not miss or delay colonoscopies and screening tests.
  • Do not ignore any odd or abnormal symptoms.
  • Do not underestimate the power of a healthy lifestyle.
  • Never avoid talking about poop, no matter how embarrassing.

Sometimes, an irregular bowel movement, like bloody or pencil-thin stools, is the only clue that something’s wrong. “Poop is such a status of your health, and talking about it could save your life,” Teitelbaum said.

Mike Lowe, a well-known reporter at WGN-TV in Chicago, announced in an Instagram post in May that he was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer.

But, he is staying “100 percent positive” about his recovery. Lowe, 44, noted that colon cancer is on the rise among younger people and wrote there is something they can do while scientists search for the reason “behind the alarming increases.”

“I haven’t even reached the age recommended for a routine screening, which is 45,” Lowe wrote. “So if you’re experiencing symptoms like constipation or abdominal pain, go see a doctor.”

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