According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), outside of skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in women in the United States. In fact, one in every 24 women will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer at some point in her life, with the risks increase after age 50.
What are the warning signs of colorectal cancer?
As with many other forms of cancer, colorectal cancer is more easily treated the earlier it’s identified. Recognizing the signs is crucial in catching the disease at its most treatable stage. While many of the symptoms of colorectal cancer can be similar to those of other ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome or hemorrhoids, it’s important to know what they are:
- Change in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation, or stool consistency)
- Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
- Abdominal pain, cramping, bloating or discomfort
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unexplained anemia (iron deficiency)
If you’ve been experiencing any of these changes longer than a few weeks, report them to your doctor.
But sometimes, there are no warning signs in the early stage of colorectal cancer. This is why regular screenings are important.
Who should get screened for colorectal cancer?
Since the vast majority (about 90%) of new cases of colorectal cancer occur in people age 50 and older, it would seem sensible that adults begin regular screenings at age 50. However, ACS actually recommends a baseline screen at age 45 for women with an average risk for the disease. Regular screenings for the average risk patient should be conducted through age 76.
Women at increased or high risk of colorectal cancer might need to start colorectal cancer screening before age 45, be screened more often, and/or get specific tests.
This includes people with:
- A strong family history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps
- A personal history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps
- A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
- A known family history of a hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome (also known as hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer or HNPCC)
- A personal history of radiation to the abdomen (belly) or pelvic area to treat a prior cancer
How is colorectal cancer detected?
Several screening tests can be used to find polyps or colorectal cancer. These include:
- Stool-based tests. These tests check the feces for signs of cancer. While they are less invasive and easier to do, they must be performed more often than other types of screening.
- Visual (structural exams). These tests, which check the structure of the colon and rectum for abnormalities by using a scope or special imaging, include flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy and CT colonography.
Each test has advantages and disadvantages. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of each test, your risk factors for colorectal cancer, and how often you should be tested.
ACS has a wealth of helpful information on colorectal cancer, including early detection and diagnosis. Click here to learn more.