Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women, next to lung and breast cancer. Colon cancer poses some similarities to common gastrointestinal problems and some gynecologic issues, making it easy for women to pass off warning signs as random aches and pains.
So, what are the most common symptoms of colon cancer in women patients? Change in bowel habits, unintentional weight loss, chronic fatigue, persistent abdominal pain, anemia, constipation, and bleeding are the main signs of colon cancer in women.
The presence of one or two symptoms doesn’t automatically mean a colon polyp is present. If you experience two or more of the following, get in touch with a gastroenterologist to understand the nature of your symptoms.
How Common is Colon Cancer in Women?
Colon cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in the United States. It’s ranked as the third leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women. 1 in every 24 women will be diagnosed with colon cancer in their lifetime.
Cancer patients, both men and women, have a 90% 5-year survival rate when diagnosed early. After cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes and other tissues, the 5-year survival rate drops to 71% and is reduced further to 14% once it reaches other parts of the body.
Are Women More Likely to Develop Colon Cancer Than Men?
Colon cancer is usually called a man’s disease because of the difference in the number of colon cancer patients in men and women. In 2018, cancer organizations estimated 101,421 new cases of colon cancer that year, 51,690 of which are men and 49,730 for women.
Despite this, women shouldn’t feel complacent when it comes to colon cancer screening. The average risk of getting colon cancer is equal in men and women over the age of 50.
Colon Cancer Facts Specific to Women
The progression and development of colon cancer differ between the sexes. A study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology discussed the gender-specific differences in colorectal cancer risk. They highlighted the following differences:
- Female patients over 65 years old have higher mortality rates and lower 5-year survival rates than male patients of the same age
- Female patients have a higher risk of developing right-sided colon cancer than men
- Since women possess longer transverse colon that men, colonoscopies pose a lower detection rate because of this biological difference
- The risk of developing proximal large polyps increased with age, race (African-American) and sex (women)
What Increases Colon Cancer Risk In Women?
Patients who smoke are more likely to develop colon cancer than patients who don’t, especially in women. A study suggests that women who smoke have a 20% increased risk of developing colon cancer compared to those who don’t smoke.
Patients suggest that women who consume 10 or fewer cigarettes a day are predisposed to higher risk of colon cancer. Additionally, women who have smoked for more than 40 years increase their cancer risk by up to 50%. The increased odds of smoking-related cancer is higher in women than men.
Although the study illustrates the relationship between smoking and an increased risk in colon cancer, scientists are still figuring out the real reason behind it, and why women smokers are at a higher risk than male smokers. Men smokers only have a 5% increased risk of developing colon cancer compared to the 15% increased risk of women who smoke.
Excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, and poor diet are other factors that increase the risk of colon cancer in women.
Colon Cancer Symptoms in Women
1. Change In Bowel Habits
Keeping track of your bowel consistency might not sound like the most appealing idea in the world, but it turns out it can actually save your life. Changes in bowel habits is one of the top symptoms of colon cancer, and most patients never pay attention to their bowels until it’s too late.
Changes could vary in size, shape, or color. What you’re looking for is a sudden difference in bowel habits. If you were on a regular bathroom schedule but notice yourself to be on the constipated side, you might want to get checked especially if you stay constipated for 3 or more months, even with various intervention efforts.
Constipation is a sign of polyps growing on your colon, and may very well be the reason why you’re on an irregular bathroom schedule.
2. Unintentional Weight Loss
Weight loss is often a welcome change for most women. It’s a sign that your new workout regimen or diet plan is working. On the other hand, experiencing unexplained weight loss could point to gastrointestinal problems you’re not yet aware of.
Watch the scale and track the numbers. Losing a healthy amount of weight every month should be no big deal, especially if you’re actively working towards a new weight goal.
But even on a diet plan, women tend to lose weight at a healthy rate of 0.5 to 1 kilos per week. If you start losing 4 or more kilos without any known reason, it could be because cancer cells in your colon are affecting your body’s ability to digest food and absorb nutrients.
If you start experiencing unprecedented weight loss with chronic fatigue, it could be a telling sign that something is wrong with your health.
3. Chronic Fatigue
Fatigue and weakness are usually passed off as stress or exhaustion from day to day living, but doctors say it’s one of the early warning signs of any cancer. When prolonged periods of fatigue and weakness remain over the course of months or get worse with time, even with medical intervention, it can be classified as chronic fatigue.
Regular fatigue is classified as chronic when it doesn’t get better with time. Patients with chronic fatigue may experience sleepiness during the day and have a hard time falling asleep at night due to insomnia. Chronic exhaustion coupled with other colon cancer symptoms could be a definite sign of colon cancer in women.
Patients with colon cancer may also experience fatigue and weakness, even with healthy diets and exercise, because of how cancer cells activate using the body’s energy reserve. When you start feeling exhausted for longer periods of time, check in with a gastroenterologist to find the underlying cause of chronic fatigue.
4. Consistent Abdominal Pain
Cramps from gastrointestinal problems and menstrual cramps can be pretty similar, which makes women quick to dismiss warning signs as normal biological processes. It’s not uncommon for women patients to mistake gastrointestinal symptoms as menstrual-related symptoms.
Because of this, a proactive attitude towards colon cancer screening is highly encouraged. Diagnosing colon cancer in women can be more challenging due to the presence of gynecologic organs that can obstruct the physician’s view during a colonoscopy. As such, we recommend women to get a full colonoscopy (colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy) to get the most out of these screening processes.
Anemia is characterized as the lack of healthy red blood cells in the bloodstream. As a result, a patient doesn’t have a healthy supply of oxygen, leading to fatigue. More often than not, chronic fatigue may be caused by anemia.
Patients become anemic due to a variety of reasons. In the case of colon cancer patients, polyps can bleed, causing the body to lose red blood cells more rapidly than they can be replaced. On top of fatigue, anemic individuals also report headaches, chest pain, dizziness, palpitations, pale skin, and cold sensation in the hands and feet. Anemia is easily treated using supplements and dietary changes.
On the other hand, anemia in post-menstrual patients could point to more serious issues. Women above the age of 50 have an increased risk of developing colon cancer due to old age. Anemia occurring after menopause is uncommon and should be subject to further medical investigation.
Anemic patients who experience rectal bleeding or observe blood in the stools should get in touch with a gastroenterologist immediately.
Learn more: Your Blood Can Tell If You Have Colon Cancer
Constipation is a common gastrointestinal issue that usually doesn’t have adverse consequences. Chronic cases of constipation can be symptomatic of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is characterized by prolonged periods of diarrhea, constipation, or both.
Because of the common symptoms shared by IBS and constipation, patients tend to dismiss their symptoms as IBS symptoms and neglect professional advice. When episodes of constipation don’t get better with an increase in fiber intake or digestive aid, it might be due to more serious gastrointestinal problems.
Constipation alone shouldn’t be worrisome. It’s a different story when it occurs with rectal bleeding, abdominal cramps, and chronic fatigue. In this case, you should get in touch with a physician to understand the underlying cause of your constipation.
Rectal bleeding and the presence of blood in the stool are two more tell-tale signs of colon cancer. Both are hard to diagnose since the cause of the bleeding is often unclear. Rectal bleeding in women has been mistaken for regular menstrual bleeding, while the presence of blood in stool has been mistaken for hemorrhoids.
Despite the superficial differences, there are some patterns to both rectal bleeding and blood in the stool that could help you determine whether it’s serious or not. Even women with irregular menstrual cycles can observe a pattern in their bleeding. Rectal bleeding is inconsistent and random. It is also typically accompanied by constipation.
Similarly, blood in the stool caused by colon cancer can be both dark or bright red in color. Most hemorrhoids can be felt around the anus. A simple physical inspection can confirm the presence of hemorrhoids.
Other Symptoms to Watch Out For
- Thin, narrow stools
- Feeling that you have to empty your bowels but nothing passes
- Not being relieved after passing bowel
- Feeling full after passing bowel
- Abdominal bloating
- Sudden loss of appetite
Am I at Risk?
The standard age for colonoscopy in women is 50. However, there has been an increase in colon cancer incidence in individuals as young as 35. Early screening is recommended for patients who are at a higher risk of developing colon cancer due to the following reasons:
Personal or family history of colon cancer
If you or any of your family members had a history of colon cancer or noncancerous polyps, you could be recommended for early screening to monitor the possibility of polyp growth in your colon.
Poor lifestyle choices
Individuals who have a low-fiber, high-fat have an increased risk of developing colon cancer. Similarly, individuals who are inactive are also more likely to develop colon cancer than healthier individuals. Excessive cigarette and alcohol consumption could also contribute to the increased risk of developing colon cancer.
Although colon cancer is not hereditary, certain disorders that can increase a person’s chance of developing polyps can be passed genetically. These include familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) or Lynch syndrome. Only a minority of diagnosed cases are linked to inherited syndromes.
The presence of chronic inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have also been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer.
When to See a Doctor
These symptoms don’t automatically guarantee the presence of colon polyps. If you notice any of the following, get in touch with a doctor and ask about getting screened for colon cancer:
- Symptoms that continue even with previous intervention
- Symptoms that get worse during bowel movements
- Symptoms that get worse with time i.e. progressive abdominal cramping
- Symptoms that are accompanied by one or two other colon cancer symptoms
Diagnosing Colon Cancer In Women
Proactive colon cancer screening is the key to defeating colon cancer. When caught early, polyps can be removed and colon cancer can be avoided altogether.
At Gastro Center NJ, we believe the first step is understanding your body and its symptoms. If you want to understand the nature of your symptoms, our top New Jersey gastroenterologists are here to shed light on your issues.
Are you ready to get a colonoscopy? Book a consultation today.