Problems of the lower colon often are impossible to ignore, causing constipation, cramps and severe discomfort. Problems of the upper colon, particularly cancer, are harder to detect, however. In that case, by the time symptoms of upper colon problems begin to appear, the disease can already have spread to the rest of the colon and other organs. Regular health screenings and a healthy lifestyle can prevent upper colon problems from developing to the point of noticeable symptoms, which can mean that it is too late for treatment.
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Colon cancer is one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers in both men and women, third behind breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men and lung cancer in both, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cancer that begins in the upper colon is particularly deadly because it is tougher to detect. Polyps in the upper colon can take as long as 20 years to develop into cancer, so catching them early through screening--endoscopies, stool tests and barium enemas--provides a high probability of effective treatment.
Tumours bleed, so blood in the stool could by a symptom of upper colon cancer. The blood will not be visible to the naked eye, however, as it will have dried by the time it passes through the rest of the colon. Other symptoms, such as lethargy, unexplained weight loss, nausea and vomiting, are more general and could apply to a wide variety of diseases. When the cancer is more advanced, jaundicing might occur, indicating that the cancer has spread beyond the upper colon to the liver.
Some of the symptoms associated with colon cancer and other colon problems are unlikely to appear when the trouble is associated with the upper colon. When passing through the upper colon, fecal waste is mostly liquid, not becoming solid until it reaches the lower colon. Therefore, the liquid waste is able to bypass tumours that would block it when in its solid form in the lower colon, so many of the symptoms associated with colon cancer--constipation or thin stool--will not appear when cancer is developing in the upper colon.
Cancer is not the only problem that can develop in the upper colon. When the small intestine collapses into the upper colon, it is known as an intussusception. Symptoms of an intussusception include nausea, vomiting and moderate to severe abdominal pain. The vomit might have a green colour, indicating bile. As the condition advances, symptoms include fatigue, rectal bleeding and blood and mucus appearing in the stool. A lump in the abdomen also might be palpable. An ultrasound will confirm the presence of an intussusception, and it often can be treated with a barium enema.
A diet high in fibre, particularly fibre from vegetables, and low in fat is the most effective way to prevent upper colon problems from developing. A calcium-rich diet also lessens the risk of upper colon cancer. Smoking, as with most cancers, increases the risk of colon cancer.
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