Skip to Content

Health Library

Medical History and Physical Exam for Colorectal Cancer

Exam Overview

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being ready to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms? Although colorectal cancer does not always cause symptoms, common symptoms include:
    • Abdominal (belly) cramps.
    • A change in your bowel habits (either constipation or diarrhea).
    • Blood in your stools.
    • Narrow stools.
    • Unexplained weight loss.
    • Fatigue.
    • Loss of appetite.
  • How long have you had the symptoms?
  • Are your symptoms getting worse?
  • Do you smoke or use other types of tobacco?
  • What foods do you typically eat? Do you eat a lot of processed foods and animal fats?
  • Have you ever been told you have cancer, either colorectal or another type?
  • Has anyone else in your family ever been diagnosed with colorectal or another type of cancer?
  • Do you have any type of inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease?
  • What drugs do you take? Make a complete list of all your prescriptions and any over-the-counter drugs, and take the list with you to your appointment.

During a physical exam, your doctor will:

  • Take your temperature and weight.
  • Listen to your heart and lungs.
  • Inspect your abdomen for signs of a tumor, enlargement of your liver, or swelling.
  • Perform a digital rectal exam.

Why It Is Done

A complete medical history and physical exam will help your doctor find the cause of your symptoms. It will also help decide whether you need more tests.

Results

The results of the medical history and physical exam may mean that a person needs to begin routine testing for colorectal cancer earlier than age 50 and have it more often. Your doctor may recommend earlier or more frequent testing if you:

  • Already have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
  • Have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) with an adenomatous polyp or colorectal cancer.
  • Have had adenomatous polyps removed from your colon. This type of polyp is more likely to turn into cancer, though the risk is still very low.
  • Have inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
  • Have a rare inherited polyp syndrome.
  • Have had endometrial cancer or ovarian cancer.
  • Have had radiation treatments to the abdomen or pelvis.

What To Think About

If your medical history and physical exam lead your doctor to suspect colorectal cancer, you will need more tests. These tests may include colonoscopy, fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy, biopsy, and complete blood count.

Complete the medical test information form (PDF)medical test information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you prepare for this test.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Kenneth Bark, MD - Surgery,
Last Revised August 20, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

© 1995-2014 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Decision Points

Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.

You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:

Interactive Tools

Get started learning more about your health!

Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.

Symptom Checker

Feeling under the weather?

Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.