I’ve been having stomach cramps on and off for months. Could they be a sign of colon cancer?
Colon cancer is usually an insidious disease, which means that it can start and grow silently without setting off any warning bells or whistles in your body. However, stomach cramps, gas, bloating and abdominal pain can be symptoms of colon cancer.
What is That Feeling?
The word "cramp" covers a vast array of discomforts in your abdomen, ranging from a slight discomfort or twinge to severe, disabling pains. Your colon may or may not be involved in the pain. Illustrate for the doctor exactly what you feel with specific words -– this helps the doctor discern what is going on in your body more quickly than simply stating, "I have stomach cramps."
It's hard to think when your stomach is cramping or pain is kicking in. While you are waiting to see your doctor, remember the PQRST pneumonic to better describe your pains:
- Pain -– describe what you were doing when the cramps started and stopped. Do the cramps start after eating? When you are resting? During exercise?
- Quality -- use exact words to describe the cramps, such as colicky, stinging, sharp, constant, intermittent, or even dull.
- Region -- describe the exact location of the cramps in your abdomen. They may be generalized (felt in the majority of your abdomen) or you may feel them in your back or on one side.
- Severity -- use a 0 through 10 scale, where 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you have ever endured. Since we all experience pain differently, this will help the doctor understand how serious or life-altering these cramps are to you.
- Timing -- describe how long the cramps last if they are intermittent, or during what timeframe they occur (morning, afternoon, evening).
It is important to remember that the severity of your symptoms does not always correlate to the severity of your problem. You may have severe, sharp cramps with a stomach flu, but only minor twinges with colon cancer (or vice versa).
What Causes the Cramping?
Aside from a diagnosis of colon cancer, stomach cramps have many different causes, which can be benign (non-life-threatening) or more serious medical problems. Some causes of stomach cramps may include:
- Gas and bloating
- Over-indulgence or indigestion
- Kidney stones or gallstones
- Inflammatory conditions (like Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis)
- Stomach virus (gastroenteritis)
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Menstruation (women)
- Ectopic pregnancy
When Should I Worry?
Although the majority of stomach cramps are caused by non-serious conditions, you will want to talk to your doctor. The haste with which you schedule that doctor's appointment is up to you, but prolonged stomach cramps (longer than 24 hours) or stomach cramps in conjunction with a fever should be assessed as soon as possible. Pay special attention to any other symptoms you have along with the stomach cramps, especially symptoms that are associated with colon cancer, including:
- Fatigue – feeling "worn out" easily despite being well-rested
- Blood in the stool
- Change in bowel habits – stool size, frequency and urgency
- Nausea or vomiting
- Stomach bloating or excessive gas
- Decreased appetite
- Anemia – also known as a low blood count
- Weight loss – in the absence of dieting or attempts to lose weight
Most frequently, abdominal pains or cramps are associated with cancers on the left side of your colon. Cramps may also be associated with advanced colon cancers -– when the tumor grows through the colon, it irritates the lining of your abdomen and causes a cramping pain. Cancerous tumors can bleed, which can irritate the lining of the abdomen or the other adjacent organs. Less frequently, large tumors may cause bowel obstructions, which can result in thin, ribbon-like stools or a complete blockage of stool passage.
At Your Doctor's Appointment
Your doctor will take a complete medical history and perform a physical examination. He or she may order screening tests to rule out cancer and other, more serious causes of stomach cramps. The tests may include x-rays, blood work, and a colonoscopy. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have a family history of colon cancer or other cancers, especially in first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, children).
American Cancer Society. (2006). American Cancer Society’s Complete Guide to Colorectal Cancer. Clifton Fields, NE: American Cancer Society.
National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Bowel Obstruction. Accessed March 11, 2012.
National Institute of Health. (n.d.). Abdominal Pain. MedlinePlus. Accessed March 10, 2012.