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Hemorrhoids and colon cancer share some common symptoms, such as rectal bleeding and bloody stools. However, they are distinct conditions that vary significantly in terms of risk and severity. For this reason, it is important to discuss the symptoms with a physician who can provide a definitive diagnosis and, if necessary, suggest an appropriate treatment plan.

Hemorrhoids are far less serious—and far more common—than colon cancer. Much like the varicose veins that develop under the skin of the legs, these swollen veins develop under the skin around the anus (external hemorrhoids) or inside the rectum (internal hemorrhoids). Colon cancer, on the other hand, is a tumor that originates in the large intestine, the long tube at the lower end of the digestive tract that carries digested food to the rectum, where the food exits the body.

Doctor explaining difference between hemorrhoids and colon cancer

Colon cancer develops when a benign growth (polyp) in the inner lining of the large intestine progresses and becomes cancerous. Although not all polyps will become cancerous, identifying and removing them is a key step in preventing colon cancer. For this reason, many experts recommend regular screening colonoscopies for average-risk adults beginning around age 50. During a colonoscopy, a physician uses imaging technology to examine the interior of the large intestine to find and remove polyps and other abnormal tissues.

Is it hemorrhoids or colon cancer?

Some factors to consider when trying to distinguish between hemorrhoids and colon cancer include:

Age and risk factors

Hemorrhoids are common among young adults; in fact, researchers estimate that approximately 50% of people will experience the condition at least once by age 50. Some risk factors for hemorrhoids include:

  • Straining during bowel movements
  • Chronic constipation
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Prolonged sitting
  • Pregnancy

In contrast, colon cancer is more likely to occur in people older than 50. The risk factors include:

  • A family history of colorectal cancer
  • A personal or family history of inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Certain genetic syndromes, such as Lynch syndrome

Symptoms and patterns

Hemorrhoids often cause rectal bleeding during bowel movements. Usually, the blood is bright or dark red and may be seen on toilet paper or in the toilet bowl. In most cases, the bleeding is painless or accompanied by only mild discomfort, such as pain or itching around the anus.

Like hemorrhoids, colon cancer can cause rectal bleeding, but the bleeding is typically more persistent and the blood may be darker in color. Additionally, colon cancer can cause other symptoms that are not generally associated with hemorrhoids, such as:

  • Abdominal pain, cramping or gas
  • Changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation
  • Inability to empty the bowel
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Overwhelming fatigue

Duration and progression

Hemorrhoids are usually episodic and flare up in response to certain factors, such as straining during bowel movements, constipation or pregnancy. The symptoms tend to resolve with appropriate care and lifestyle changes.

Conversely, colon cancer symptoms often persist and worsen over time. Therefore, it is crucial to promptly discuss any symptoms or other unusual changes with a physician, especially for adults older than 50.

Results of a physical examination

When performing a physical examination, a physician can identify external hemorrhoids, which may be visible around the anus. However, internal hemorrhoids cannot be seen without the use of specialized equipment.

Colon cancer can sometimes be detected through a digital rectal exam (DRE) or by evaluating the rectal wall for irregularities or masses. Most often, though, colon cancer is found through a colonoscopy or another imaging test.

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

While hemorrhoids and colon cancer share certain symptoms, several factors can be helpful in differentiating the two, including the patient’s age and risk factors; the nature, patterns, duration and progression of symptoms and the results of a physical exam. If you are concerned about rectal bleeding or other symptoms, you can consult with a specialist in Moffitt’s renowned Gastrointestinal Oncology Program without a referral. At Moffitt, you will receive a thorough evaluation and appropriate diagnostic testing to help ensure an accurate diagnosis and timely treatment. Colon cancer is a serious condition, and early detection can significantly improve the outcome.

To request an appointment at Moffitt, call 1-888-663-3488  or submit a new patient registration form online.