Colon cancer and hemorrhoids often present with the same symptoms. Without additional testing, the two conditions can be indistinguishable from one another. In fact, around 90% of patients with colon or rectal cancer initially believe they have a case of hemorrhoids, according to StopColonCancerNow.com. But this confusion isn’t limited to laypeople. Even extremely skilled physicians can mistake a case of colorectal cancer for hemorrhoids. In the vast majority of cases, additional testing is required to make an accurate diagnosis, and discern between the two conditions.
Do I Have Hemorrhoids Or Cancer?
Statistically, you’re far more likely to have hemorrhoids than colon cancer. While around 75% of adults will experience the symptoms of hemorrhoids by 50, only 4.5% of patients, male or female, are ever diagnosed with a cancer of the colon or rectum.
Most patients are tipped off to a potential problem by rectal bleeding or rectal itching, which can be very distressing. Both colon cancer and hemorrhoids can cause these symptoms, but as we’ll see, there may be a way to tell the difference.
What Are Hemorrhoids?
Hemorrhoids happen when the veins around the anus, or those inside the lower rectum, become swollen. While both internal and external hemorrhoids are painful, external hemorrhoids, when the veins surrounding the outside of the anus become inflamed, are much more common.
The symptoms of hemorrhoids include:
- severe itching around the anus
- pain and irritation surrounding the anus
- painful or itchy lumps near the anus
- painful bowel movements
- blood in the stool
- fecal leakage (an inability to control bowel movements completely)
For most people, hemorrhoids are a temporary problem. Symptoms flare up and then subside, often in response to irritation or strain.
Colorectal Cancer Vs. Hemorrhoids
In other words, the symptoms of hemorrhoids are inconstant. You may find blood in your stool or on the toilet paper one day, but not the next. Moreover, the symptoms usually go away over time. Colon cancer, on the other hand, doesn’t subside in the same way. Neither do the symptoms of colon cancer. Constant rectal bleeding is more often a sign of colorectal cancer than hemorrhoids.
Pain is another major differentiator between hemorrhoids and cancer. While hemorrhoids can cause pain, the rectal bleeding associated with hemorrhoids almost never does. If you’re experiencing painful rectal bleeding, you may have something more serious than hemorrhoids.
Pain is usually associated with internal hemorrhoids, which are less common than external hemorrhoids.
What Causes Hemorrhoids?
Under pressure, the veins around the anus can stretch, which may cause them to swell or bulge. In short, anything that increases pressure in the lower rectum can cause a case of hemorrhoids. That usually means:
- chronic constipation
- straining during defecation
- sitting on the toilet too long
Pregnancy is another major risk factor for hemorrhoids. When the uterus expands, it can press on a vein in the colon and constrict it painfully. Colon cancer is more likely to be diagnosed in men than women, according to the Stop Cancer Fund.
Colorectal Cancer Symptoms & Signs
Any rectal bleeding is cause for concern, and you should consult your doctor if you begin to experience these or associated symptoms. But abnormally-heavy rectal bleeding could be a sign of colorectal cancer, not hemorrhoids.
Watch out for these other signs, which are more likely to occur with colon or rectal cancer than with hemorrhoids:
- unexpected weight loss and / or fatigue
- pain in your lower abdomen
- changes in the shape of your bowel movements (stool no longer appears round)
- changes in your defecation habits (either diarrhea or constipation)
- excessive gas
- tenesmus (the constant sense that you have to pass stool, even when your bowels are empty)
In their early stages, colorectal cancers don’t usually cause any symptoms. That’s why most governmental agencies suggest that patients begin receiving routine screenings for the disease around the age of 50. If symptoms do begin, specialist medical attention is suggested; many patients have had their colorectal cancer symptoms dismissed as the result of a “benign” disease, or been misdiagnosed with colon cancer.