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Early Signs of Colon Cancer in Women: 5 Things to Know

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Colon cancer statistics can be a bit sobering.

According to the American Cancer Society, 4.4% of men and 4.1% of women will be diagnosed with colon cancer in their lifetime.

Also called colorectal cancer, it is the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women. It's the second most-common cause of cancer deaths when numbers for men and women are combined. It's expected to cause about 53,010 deaths during 2024.

Total annual medical cost of colorectal cancer care is $14.1 billion.

While colon cancer statistics and symptoms are similar for both sexes, women can have a harder time reading the signs of the deadly cancer. That’s because symptoms can mimic other sometimes common issues.

Those can include cramping, which premenopausal women might be tempted to dismiss, or rectal bleeding, which many women of childbearing age attribute to hemorrhoids that can develop during childbirth. Constipation might also be dismissed because of diet — especially in Louisiana, lifestyle and pelvis anatomy.

Experts say the key to beating the disease is early detection. That means knowing the early signs and getting regular screenings.

Certain female groups are at higher risk for colorectal cancer

American Indian or Native Americans have the highest rate of colorectal cancer, followed by Black patients when compared to white patients.

Some of the reasons for this include:

  • Limited health care access
  • A lesser likelihood to receive a follow-up after a positive screening test
  • Differences in tumor characteristics
Colorectal cancer rates in women
American Indian or Native American42.5
Asian American/Pacific Islander24.3
*rates per 100,000 population / Source: American Cancer Society

Colorectal cancer rates are rising in younger patients

Researchers reviewed colorectal cancer statistics from 1998 to 2015 and found that colorectal cancer is rising among people age 40 to 49. One reason for the increase in this age group could be lifestyle factors like the obesity epidemic and the epigenetic interaction — how behaviors and environment cause changes that affect the way our genes work — between obesity, diet and sedentary behavior.

Because of these statistics and studies, in January 2022 the U.S. Multi-Society Task Force lowered the age for colorectal cancer screening to 45. It previously was 50.

Early signs of colorectal cancer

With colorectal cancer, cells in the inner lining of the colon or rectum grow out of control. Most of these cancers start as noncancerous growths called polyps.

If cancer forms in a polyp, it can grow into the wall of the colon or rectum over time. If untreated, colon cancer may spread to other areas of your body.

In the very early stages, colon cancer may have no noticeable symptoms. As a tumor grows, it may bleed or block the intestine.

When they do appear, the symptoms are similar for both men and women. They include:

  • A change in bowel habits
  • Blood in or on your stool
  • Diarrhea, constipation, or feeling that the bowel does not empty all the way
  • Abdominal pain, aches, or cramps that don’t go away
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue

For women, a lack of energy, bloating, and abdominal cramps can easily be written off as symptoms related to a menstrual cycle. But if these issues normally associated with the menstrual period last longer than usual, or if they’re accompanied by rectal bleeding, unexplained weight loss, or other symptoms, it’s time to see a doctor.

While men and women face similar risks when it comes to colon cancer, women must distinguish early sings of the disease from common gynecological symptoms.

Women should talk to their doctors if they regularly experience fatigue or abdominal pain that seems unrelated to the menstrual cycle, or if they experience these symptoms for the first time — even if they’re aligned with the menstrual cycle.

Colorectal cancer risk factors

For both women and men, the risk of getting colorectal cancer increases with age. However, getting regular physical activity and keeping a healthy weight can help lower the risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition to age, other risk factors include having:

  • Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps
  • A genetic syndrome like familial adenomatous polyposis or Lynch Syndrome

Certain lifestyle factors may also play a role in increasing the risk. They include:

  • Lack of regular physical activity
  • A diet low in fruit and vegetables
  • A low-fiber and high-fat diet, or one high in processed meats
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Tobacco use

What is a colonoscopy?

Now for the better news. Colon cancer is one of the most treatable types of cancer when discovered in the early stages. The overall death rate from colorectal cancer has been declining for several decades. That’s because screening for the disease is much more prevalent than it used to be, and treatments have improved dramatically.

The American Cancer Society reports that incidence rates dropped by about 1% each year since 2011, mostly in older adults. However, rates have been rising by 1% to 2% a year in people under the age of 50.

It is recommended that people with average risk of colon cancer begin regular screening at age 45. Those with certain risk factors as those mentioned above may need to start even sooner.

A colonoscopy screening is the gold standard in screening for colon cancer. During the procedure, the patient is sedated while a doctor uses a flexible tube with a camera on one end to look inside the colon. This is an outpatient procedure, meaning you will be able to go home the same day.

A colonoscopy helps a doctor see precancerous colon polyps, which they then can remove. The procedure typically takes less than an hour and is mostly painless for the patient.

Colon polyps in adults are common and mostly harmless. However, because most colon cancers originate as a polyp, removing them early helps prevent cancer.

Even if a cancerous tumor is found, a colonoscopy can find it in its early stages when treatment works best. About nine out of every 10 people whose colorectal cancers are found early and treated appropriately are still alive five years later, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Remember, screening and early detection are crucial. If caught early or while in the polyp stage, colon cancer doesn’t stand a chance.

Learn more about colorectal cancer screenings at Ochsner at

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