Colon Cancer Is One of the Most Common Cancers In the United States—Here Are the Top Signs and Symptoms to Look Out For
You might be surprised by how often people are diagnosed with colon cancer. “A lot of people don’t realize how common colon cancer really is,” says gastroenterologist Dr. Folasade May, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
By the end of 2021, nearly 150,000 people in the United States will likely be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. That breaks down to about 104,000 new cases of colon cancer and 45,000 new cases of rectal cancer.
And if you’ve ever assumed that it’s much less likely to be an issue for women than for men, guess again. Women need to be just as aware of it as men. In fact, the American Cancer Society reports that the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is 4 percent for women, or about 1 in 25 women, which is just slightly less than the 4.3 percent lifetime risk for men.
“It is more common in men, but it’s still one of the most common cancers in women,” says Dr. May. Colorectal cancer is also the third cause of cancer deaths in women, right behind lung cancer and breast cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Signs of colon cancer in women
Colorectal cancer encompasses both colon cancer and rectal cancer. Both types of cancer begin in the large intestine, although rectal cancer forms in the last few inches of the intestine near the anus. The screening to detect them is the same, although their treatments tend to differ.
Colon and rectal cancer also share many of the same symptoms. Women could certainly benefit from learning about these signs and symptoms so they can watch for them. Some of these signs include:
Blood in your stool
Blood in the stool is one of the most common signs. But it’s also a sign that many people miss or dismiss, says Dr. Carole Macaron, MD, a gastroenterologist with the Cleveland Clinic. They don’t worry that it might be a sign of something serious.
Bleeding doesn’t necessarily mean that you have colon or rectal cancer, of course. Rectal bleeding can sometimes result after you push out a hard stool. And sometimes women will see blood in the toilet bowl or on their toilet paper and attribute it to menstrual spotting or a hemorrhoid, which it can be. But blood in the stool, no matter what color or amount, deserves attention.
“When you see blood, you should seek care,” says Dr. Macaron.
Unexplained or sudden changes in your bowel habits
If your bowel habits change unexpectedly, you should take notice. For example, if you normally don’t have any issues with constipation but you develop a long-lasting case out of the blue, don’t ignore it. A mass can block the colon, so you can’t produce any stool. If you experience constipation that lasts more than a week or two, you’ll need to be evaluated, Dr. May says.
Changes in the shape of your stool
Next time you have a bowel movement, take a look at it before you flush. Does it look the way it usually does? “It’s not only the consistency and frequency but also the shape of the stool,” says Dr. Macaron. “Ribbon-like stools, or pencil-thin stools, are a sign that you should watch for and look for especially if you used to have normally-formed stools. It could suggest something is impeding the flow of the stool.”
Abdominal cramping or pain
Some women might also experience some cramping or pain in their abdomen. This symptom can be tricky because it could also be a symptom of another condition. “It can be mistaken for menstrual cramps,” Dr. May notes. But if you experience anything out of the ordinary, discuss it with your doctor.
Symptoms more likely to be present in advanced cases
In advanced cases of colon cancer, some people experience a loss of appetite, fatigue, and weight loss. Over time, blood loss can lead to low red blood cell counts, so some people also develop iron-deficiency anemia, according to the American Cancer Society.
If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your doctor right away. Too many people are reluctant to talk about anything involving poop, or their bowels, but unfortunately, that can inhibit them from seeking out the care they need, says Dr. May.
“The stigma is real, and the stigma is life-threatening,” she says.
But what if you never develop any of these symptoms? That doesn’t mean you never have to think about colon cancer. “The majority of patients with early-stage colon cancer do not have symptoms,” says Dr. Macaron. “That’s why it’s important to keep up with screening and following the recommendations.”
Here’s the number you need to remember: 45. At age 45, people at average risk for developing colorectal cancer, should start regular screenings.
The recommended age used to be higher. The American Cancer Society (ACS) began recommending in 2018 that people at average risk for colorectal cancer begin regular screening at age 45. It took the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), which is a national panel of experts in preventive medicine, a few years to concur. In May 2021, the USPSTF updated its 2016 recommendations to lower the recommended age for a first screening from age 50 to age 45. (People with a close relative who’s had colorectal cancer should start getting screened at age 40.)
If you’re under 45 and you’re not at elevated risk, just make a note to yourself that you should schedule a screening around your 45th birthday. (And keep an eye out for symptoms, just in case.) If you’ve already passed the 45-year mark, talk to your doctor about a screening.
“It’s important because if we find colorectal cancer early, in stage 1, the survival rate is 90 percent,” says Dr. May.