October 30, 2023
October 26, 2023

Symptoms of Colon Cancer in Women vs. Men: Do They Differ?

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Symptoms of Colon Cancer in Women vs. Men: Do They Differ?

Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the United States and the second deadliest type of cancer for both men and women. Symptoms of colon cancer in women and men are similar, but there are some differences in the types and location of the cancer as well as the timing to diagnosis. 

Here, we’ll share details about colorectal cancer symptoms, the route to diagnosis, and most importantly, how colon cancer screening is the key to prevention.

What Is Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal cancer is when abnormal cancerous cells begin growing in the large intestine, including the colon and rectum. The colon is about five feet long and absorbs water from the stool while the rectum, which stores stool, is about six inches long and comprises the last portion of the colon. The term “colorectal cancer” is often used interchangeably with colon cancer and also includes cancer of the rectum. It’s also sometimes referred to as bowel cancer. 

Colon cancer typically begins as clumps of abnormal cells or growths called polyps. Over time, these can transform into cancer. Polyps themselves usually don’t cause any symptoms, which is why colorectal cancer screening is so important and potentially lifesaving.

What Are Risk Factors for Colon and Rectal Cancer?

When it comes to colon and rectal cancer, many risk factors have been identified. It’s thought that up to half of colorectal cancer cases could be prevented by modifying certain lifestyle factors. Some of these modifiable risk factors include:

Other risk factors of bowel cancer that can’t be modified include:

  • Family history of colon cancer: Some inherited syndromes can significantly heighten the risk of colon cancer. These include Lynch syndrome, also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). Other mutations such as BRCA1 and 2, which are more commonly associated with breast cancer, can also increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer.
  • Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease: This includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which can lead to a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

How Is Colorectal Cancer Different in Women?

Colorectal cancer is more common in men than women with a mortality risk of up to 40% higher in men. However, women are more likely to develop colon cancer on the right side of their colon, which is usually diagnosed at a later stage and can be more aggressive. 

The reasons for these differences are still not yet fully understood, but they’re possibly related to males having more exposure to modifiable risk factors like tobacco, alcohol intake, and red meat consumption compared to their female counterparts.

What Are Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer in Women?

Symptoms of colon cancer in women: woman jogging at a beach

Symptoms of colorectal cancer are typically similar in men and women. However, there are some key differences in the timing of when they present for further evaluation. For example, research has shown that when men and women report their symptoms to their partner, women are more likely to urge men to be evaluated sooner whereas women are more likely to wait and see if the symptoms resolve on their own.

While the symptoms of colon cancer in women and men are the same, women generally develop colon cancer an average of 10 years later in life compared to men. As a result, symptoms can be masked by other medical conditions or comorbidities.

Common symptoms of colon cancer in women and men include:

  • Blood in the stool or rectal bleeding
  • Changes in bowel movements, which could include either constipation or diarrhea
  • Unexplained fatigue and weight loss
  • Anemia — over time, many people with colorectal cancer develop iron deficiency from blood loss through the stool
  • Abdominal pain that can range in severity — severe abdominal pain paired with vomiting can be a warning sign of a more emergent situation, such as bowel obstruction if the tumor is big enough to block the bowel
  • Bloating is nonspecific and can be a difficult symptom to differentiate in women who are menstruating; women should keep track of their menstrual cycle symptoms and get evaluated if they develop any new or worsening symptoms as it could be a sign of something new, such as colorectal cancer

Like many types of cancer, colon cancer may not cause any symptoms in the initial or early stages, so it’s possible to have it without even knowing. This is why colorectal cancer screening is so crucial. Colonoscopy procedures can detect polyps and remove them before they have the chance to become cancerous.

How Is Colorectal Cancer Diagnosed?

Colon cancer is most often diagnosed by a procedure called a colonoscopy. This procedure is performed while someone is under sedation and an endoscope is placed in the anus. The endoscope has a camera at the end and takes pictures throughout the colon. 

During the procedure, if colon polyps or other suspicious lesions are found, biopsies can be taken and entire polyps can sometimes be removed. These samples are then sent to pathology, which can show if the cells are malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous).

There are also fecal or stool tests that can show blood in the stool or certain DNA changes, indicating a need for further evaluation. Along with biopsies, blood tests can check for anemia, liver function, and tumor markers which together can aid in diagnosis.

Imaging tests can also help in diagnosing colorectal cancer and planning treatment. Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be helpful in looking throughout the body to see if the cancer has spread.

What Is the Best Screening and Treatment for Colorectal Cancer?

There are many cancer treatment options for colorectal cancer. Depending on the location, size, and stage of the cancer, treatment may include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation therapy. Sometimes surgery is also an option, especially if the cancer is found at its early stages. If cancer is found, a colorectal cancer care team generally includes an oncology or cancer specialist, gastroenterologist, radiologist, and pathologist.

While treatment options for colon cancer continue to improve, early detection allows for better outcomes, which means following colorectal cancer screening recommendations. 

Recently, there has been an increase in diagnosis in young adults. As such, the American Cancer Society states the age recommendation for colorectal cancer screening is now 45 years old (previously 50 years old) for people with an average risk of developing colon cancer. Other people with higher risk factors — such as a history of inflammatory bowel disease or a family history of colon cancer — may benefit from earlier screening.

Learn the Signs of Colon Cancer and Be Proactive About Your Health

Symptoms of colon cancer in women: friends happily having coffee outdoors

Some risk factors for colon cancer can’t be changed — like family history and genetics. But there are also many that you can change. These include lifestyle choices like limiting red meat consumption, exercising frequently, and not smoking. Another key factor that’s in your hands is discussing colorectal cancer screening guidelines with your healthcare provider to see what age you should start.

When it comes to taking charge of your health, you can make lifestyle changes to decrease your risk of different types of cancers. While the Ezra scan is not for detection of colon cancer, you can take it one step further by getting Ezra’s Full Body MRI, which can provide valuable information about 13 organs and potentially detect over 500 different medical conditions. 

While symptoms of colon cancer in women and men tend to be similar, the disease may not cause any symptoms in its early stages. That’s why the best approach to improve outcomes includes proper screening for the purpose of early detection. Assess your own cancer risk by using this cancer risk calculator — it only takes five minutes. Then, consider booking a scan with Ezra today. It could be the key to early detection of cancer.