How women can recognize and reduce risks of colon cancer

In the wake of news that actor Kirstie Alley died of colon cancer, cancer specialists are urging people to get the recommended screenings for the disease and to not ignore symptoms of colorectal cancer.

Women may be tempted to dismiss the early symptoms of colon cancer, including abdominal bloating and discomfort, as little more than gynecological issues.

Colorectal cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in women and men. When it’s found early colon cancer can often be cured, but several colon cancer symptoms for women can be confused as being something else.

“The symptoms of colon cancer are fairly universal to both women and men,” said colorectal surgeon Dipen Maun, MD, FACS, FACRS, at Franciscan Physician Network Colon & Rectal Specialists Indianapolis. “These include bleeding, weight loss, abdominal pain, change in bowel habits, weakness and fatigue.”

Menstrual Symptoms or Signs of Colon Cancer in Women?

Women might be tempted to dismiss the early signs of colon cancer, including abdominal bloating and discomfort, as little more than menstrual issues. Although it is easy to distinguish between some colorectal and gynecological symptoms, such as where the bleeding is from (rectal vs. vaginal), the differences are not always clear.

“This can be hard to distinguish because the symptoms of colon cancer are so wide and variable,” Dr. Maun said. “The biggest difference of menstrual symptoms is the timing and cyclical nature, whereas colon cancer may or may not follow the same pattern. Persistent symptoms or new symptoms should never be ignored, and medical attention should be sought.”

What Are the symptoms Of Colorectal Cancer?

Symptoms of colorectal cancer may not be visible right away. Colon cancer symptoms for women can include:

  • A change in bowel habits that lasts for more than a few days, such as diarrhea, constipation, or a feeling that your bowel is not empty after a bowel movement
  • Bright red or very dark blood in your stool
  • Constant tiredness
  • Stools that are thinner than usual or that look slimy or have mucous on them
  • Ongoing gas pains, bloating, fullness or cramps
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Vomiting

What Are the Risks Factors?

Many of the same risk factors of colon cancer for women are the same those for men. Among these risks are:

  • Increased age. The risk of developing colorectal cancer tends to climb significantly after the age of 50, though more younger people are developing colon cancer, too.
  • Personal history of polyps. If you’ve had benign polyps in the past, you face higher risks of cancerous polyps forming later.
  • Family history of colon cancer or polyps. Having a parent, sibling or other close relative with colon cancer or a history of polyps increases your chance of colorectal cancer.
  • Unhealthy lifestyle. Being sedentary or obese, smoking, and drinking alcohol can raise your risk of many cancers.
  • Women with Lynch syndrome, or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer and other cancers including ovarian, endometrial, breast and pancreatic cancers.
  • Survivors or relatives of women with ovarian, endometrial or uterine cancer may have a higher risk of developing colon cancer.
See your doctor for colon cancer symptoms which may include bright red or dark blood in your stool, unexplained weight loss, constant fatigue, vomiting and changes in bowel habits lasting more than a few days. (Stock image)

Does Hormone Replacement Therapy Make a Difference in Colon Cancer Risk?

Studies show that women who use hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, after menopause have a lower risk for colorectal cancer.

“Hormone replacement therapy helps protect women from colon cancer because the estrogen receptor is involved in DNA repair,” Dr. Maun explained. “An inability to repair defective DNA is one of the big molecular reasons why colon cancer occurs in the human body. Numerous studies have suggested that HRT does lower the risk of GI cancers, and it may also explain why colon cancer is more common in men, but the decision to start or stop HRT should not be based solely on colon cancer risk. In addition, some studies have shown that women who were on HRT and developed colon cancer were more likely to be at a more advanced stage.”

Because taking estrogen and progesterone after menopause can increase a woman’s risk of heart disease, blood clots, and lung and breast cancer, it’s not commonly recommended to take hormone replacement therapy just to lower colorectal cancer risk. If you’re considering using hormone replacement therapy, be sure to discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor.

Can Women Prevent Colon Cancer?

“There is no magical diet or rule of thumb for colon cancer prevention but employing healthy habits in all aspects of life is critical,” Dr. Maun said. “Examples of this include regular exercise, smoking cessation, limiting alcohol, limiting red meat intake, and having at least 20 grams of fiber intake per day (fruits, vegetables, grains). Try and maintain weight or BMI in the normal range. Get screened for colon cancer when appropriate, and never ignore gastrointestinal symptoms.”

Watch Your Weight

Being overweight or obese increases the risk of colorectal cancer in both men and women. A study of more than 85,000 women ages 25 to 42 found that overweight and obese women were more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer before age 50. Those who gained 40 or more pounds in adulthood had more than a 60 percent higher risk of developing colorectal cancer, compared with women who had lost weight or gained less than 11 pounds.

Cut The Screen Time

Another study found that women who watched more than an hour of TV a day had a 12 percent higher risk of colon cancer – regardless of how much they exercised.

Change Your Diet

Diet changes may make a difference in your risk of developing colorectal cancer. These include:

  • Limit your red meat, including beef, sausage and bacon.
  • Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains to help lower your colorectal cancer risk. These foods also have the benefit of the added fiber for your diet.
  • Some studies have found that increasing calcium intake may lower the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Eating vegetarian may cut your colon cancer risk by 19 percent, compared to non-vegetarians.

Limit Your Alcohol

Women should limit their alcohol use to one drink a day (two drinks for men) to help lower risk of many types of cancer, including colorectal cancer.

Avoid Smoking

Smoking can raise the risk of colorectal cancer. If you smoke, quit.

Should I Be Screened for Colon Cancer Symptoms?

Both the American Cancer Society and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommend starting colon cancer screening when you turn 45 if you’re at average risk for developing colon cancer. If you have a family history of colon cancer or other risk factors, the age to begin screening for colorectal cancer is even earlier.

“That doesn’t mean that people younger than the recommended screening age can’t develop cancer,” Dr. Maun said. It’s very important to engage in healthy living, listen to your body and not ignore or blow off signs and symptoms of colon cancer.”

How Common is Colorectal Cancer in Women?

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 130,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year and about 50,000 people die of colorectal cancer each year in the U.S.

“The incidence and overall mortality (death rate) is higher in women compared to men in population groups older than 65,” Dr. Maun said. “This may be due to the fact that women are more likely to have a right-sided cancer, and right-sided cancers can sometimes be diagnosed at a later stage and act more aggressively.”

Dr. Maun encourages women to proactively get screened for colon cancer, rather than wait for symptoms to show.

“It’s been suggested that women are less likely to get screened for colon cancer due to socio-cultural barriers,” Dr. Maun said. “I’m hopeful that continuing the dialogue and educating populations will help break down the barriers to get screened, especially in women.”