Hemorrhoids and certain types of cancer, most notably colon cancer and anal cancer, can cause similar symptoms. This might cause people with rectal bleeding or lumps in the anus to believe that they have cancer.
Hemorrhoids are more common than cancer and are the most likely explanation for bleeding or rectal pain. However, it is impossible for a person to self-diagnose based on symptoms alone, so it is important to talk with a doctor.
Keep reading to learn more about how to tell the difference between hemorrhoids and cancer.
Hemorrhoids refer to swollen veins inside the rectum and anus. They can become irritated and bleed, hurt, or itch.
Cancer develops because cells grow out of control. Anal cancer may cause a growth or lump in the rectum or anus, while colon cancer affects the colon and does not cause lumps or bumps that a person can feel with their hand.
It is not always possible to tell the difference between cancer and hemorrhoids.
The symptoms are more likely to be due to hemorrhoids if the:
- person has risk factors for hemorrhoids, such as a current pregnancy, constipation, a history of straining to have bowel movements, or a history of hemorrhoids
- symptoms get better with home treatment, eating more fiber, taking sitz baths, or applying hemorrhoid creams
- person can feel a swollen lump or bump near the anus or see a swollen vein with a mirror
- symptoms come and go but are neither getting progressively worse nor causing other symptoms, such as weight loss
It is important to talk with a doctor about any changes in health, since it is much easier to treat cancer in its early stages.
Some factors that increase the risk of cancer include:
- being over the age of 50 years
- having a family history of cancer
Some symptoms that indicate hemorrhoids include:
- painful itching or burning near the entrance to the rectum
- pain that gets worse after having a bowel movement
- bleeding from the rectum
- blood in the stool
The symptoms of anal cancer are similar, so it is important to ask a doctor about any growth or bleeding that does not go away.
Anal cancer is highly treatable, especially with early diagnosis and treatment.
Colon cancer often does not cause any symptoms in its early stages. This is why regular colon cancer screenings are so important for good health. Some symptoms a person might notice include:
- tarry bowel movements
- blood in the stool
- bleeding from the rectum
- a feeling that one needs to use the bathroom, which does not go away after having a bowel movement
- pressure or pain in the stomach
- fatigue or weakness
- a prolonged, unexplained change in bowel habits, such as frequent diarrhea or constipation
- unintended weight loss
Anyone can experience hemorrhoids, and the risk tends to increase with age.
Hemorrhoids can be internal, which means that the damaged vein is inside the rectum, or external, which means that it is outside the rectum — often at the entrance. Internal hemorrhoids tend to be painless, while external hemorrhoids can cause pain.
A hemorrhoid appears when a vein in the rectum becomes irritated and inflamed. It grows larger, causing bowel movements to rub against it. This can cause pain.
Hemorrhoids occur naturally. Some risk factors include:
- being pregnant or having overweight or obesity, since this puts more pressure on the rectum
- having constipation or consuming a low fiber diet
- straining to have a bowel movement
- having a sedentary lifestyle
Cancer is a complex condition that does not have a single cause.
Certain risk factors increase the likelihood of developing anal cancer, including:
- having a history of human papillomavirus
- sustaining chronic injuries to the anus
- being over the age of 55 years
A person is more likely to develop colon cancer if they:
- have overweight or obesity
- have a family history of colon cancer
- eat lots of fried foods
- consume a lot of alcohol
Genetics may also play a role. People with a family history of cancer may be more likely to develop the condition.
Age also increases the risk of cancer, and most cancers are uncommon in young people.
A doctor can usually diagnose hemorrhoids by conducting a simple rectal exam and taking a medical history. If they notice an unusual growth that is not a hemorrhoid, they may recommend a biopsy to test for anal cancer.
Diagnosing colon cancer is more difficult. This is because cancer markers do not necessarily correlate with the presence or absence of cancer. Therefore, the doctor may also recommend testing based on symptoms. For example, they may ask if a person has bleeding but no hemorrhoids or if hemorrhoid treatment does not relieve their symptoms.
They may perform blood work to look for cancer markers or recommend a colonoscopy to look for growths. A colonoscopy involves inserting a thin, flexible tube into the rectum while the person is asleep or sedated. If the doctor finds a growth, they may examine it in the laboratory or recommend a biopsy.
A number of lifestyle changes may improve the symptoms of hemorrhoids. For example, people can try:
- eating more fiber
- not straining during bowel movements
- treating constipation
- becoming more physically active
- taking a sitz bath when hemorrhoids are painful
If these options do not help, a doctor may recommend surgery to remove the hemorrhoid.
Treatment for cancer depends on the type, stage, and location, as well as a person’s overall health. In general, some treatment options include:
- surgery, to remove cancerous growths
- chemotherapy or radiation therapy, to slow or stop the spread of cancer
- medication, to slow the spread of cancer
- treatments that deal with both the side effects of cancer and the side effects of cancer treatment
Bleeding from or pain in the rectum can be concerning, especially to people with a family history of cancer. It is important not to delay treatment because of fear.
A doctor can diagnose the cause, recommend treatment, and offer reassurance.
Even if it is cancer, getting an early diagnosis can significantly improve the chance of surviving and remaining healthy.