Symptoms of Colon Cancer in Women

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men and women in the United States. Overall, the lifetime risk of developing colon cancer is slightly higher in men (4.4%) than in women (4.1%). Symptoms of colon cancer are usually the same for women and men, however, symptoms in women may be mistaken for gynecological or menstrual issues.

woman laying down holding stomach

Grace Cary/Getty Images

Common Symptoms of Colon Cancer

Common symptoms of colon cancer include a change in bowel habits that persist, bleeding from the rectum or in stools, abdominal cramping and discomfort, unexplained weight loss, weakness and fatigue, and a feeling that the bowel isn’t fully empty. If you have risk factors, like a family history of colon cancer or an unhealthy lifestyle, you should discuss any early symptoms with your doctor.

Early Stage

Not everyone will experience early symptoms of colon cancer, and they may vary depending on the size and location of the cancer. If symptoms are present they may include:

  • Changes in bowel habits that last longer than a few days. This may include a change to the consistency of stools, diarrhea, or constipation.
  • Bright red bleeding from the rectum
  • Bloody stools that may make stools appear brown or black
  • Pain or cramping in the abdomen
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Feelings that the bowel doesn’t completely empty with a bowel movement

Advanced stage

If left undiagnosed, colon cancer can lead to complications and serious symptoms. These include:

  • Cancer spreading to the lymph nodes
  • Cancer spreading to other organs in the body like the liver
  • Blockages in the colon, causing bowel obstructions

Colon Cancer Symptoms vs Gynecological Issues

The median age of diagnosis of colon cancer in women is 72, compared with 68 in men. Colon cancer is more likely to affect older women who are no longer menstruating, however, the number of people under 55 diagnosed with colon cancer is increasing. Between 2007 and 2016, the incidence of colon cancer increased by 2% every year for those younger than 55.

Some of the symptoms of colon cancer may be mistaken for normal symptoms of menstruation or other gynecological issues. These symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramping that could be mistaken for menstrual cramps.
  • Changes to bowel habits, diarrhea, and constipation that are also common during menstruation. 
  • Feelings of tiredness that could be dismissed as being due to premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

When to See a Doctor

Any changes to bowel habits, bleeding from the rectum, blood in the stools, abdominal discomfort, and unintended weight loss are all symptoms that should be discussed with your doctor.

If you have risk factors for colon cancer, you should discuss colon cancer screening options with your doctor.

Colon Cancer Screening

The American Cancer Society recommends that women and men with an average risk for colon cancer begin regular colon cancer screening at the age of 45. For those with risk factors like a family history of colon cancer, your doctor may advise beginning screening earlier.

Screening allows doctors to find colon cancer even if a person isn’t experiencing symptoms. Colon cancer often begins with abnormal growths in the colon called polyps. Screening tests, like stool tests or colonoscopy, can find these polyps before they become cancerous, which then allows your doctor to remove them before they become an issue. Regular screening also allows doctors to find cancer in the colon early when treatments are most effective.

Even if you are under the recommended age for screening, your doctor may advise you to begin regular screening due to your risk factors.

Risk Factors

There are a number of risk factors that may increase the chance of developing colon cancer. If you have any of these risk factors, you should discuss options with your doctor.

Risk factors for colon cancer fall into two categories: those that can be changed and those that can’t.

Risk factors that could be changed include lifestyle-related factors.

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being sedentary and not exercising regularly
  • A diet high in red meat or processed meats
  • Being low in vitamin D
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use, even light to moderate use

Some risk factors, however, cannot be changed. These include:

  • Being older
  • Having inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis
  • A family history of colon cancer or polyps
  • A personal history of polyps
  • Being African American
  • Having Lynch syndrome, a hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome

The lifetime risk for colorectal cancer for people with Lynch syndrome might be as high as 50%, depending on the genes impacted. Women with Lynch syndrome are also at a very high risk for cancer in the endometrium (lining of the uterus).  

Whether you have risk factors you can modify through lifestyle changes or risk factors that are beyond your control, it is important to discuss your risk and any symptoms with your doctor.

Hormone Replacement Therapy

Studies have shown that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause can lower the risk of colorectal cancers in women, though this is still under investigation. The decision to begin HRT should not be based just on the risk of colon cancer. Taking estrogen and progesterone after menopause can increase a woman’s risk for a variety of diseases as well as lung and breast cancer. You should discuss the benefits and risks of HRT with your doctor.

A Word From Verywell

Colon cancer can be a frightening disease to think about, and distinguishing between the symptoms of colon cancer and symptoms of menstruation or gynecological issues can be difficult for women. Remember, just because you have symptoms, doesn’t mean you necessarily have colon cancer. If you are ever in doubt or are experiencing symptoms, you should speak with your doctor. Regular screening means colon cancers can be detected early, when treatments are most effective. You can lower your chance of colon cancer through easy steps like maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, and following a healthy lifestyle.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for colorectal cancer. Updated August 31, 2020.

  2. American Cancer Society. Colorectal cancer signs and symptoms. Updated June 29, 2020.

  3. Medline Plus. Colorectal cancer. Updated February 6, 2020.

  4. American Cancer Society. Colorectal cancer facts & figures 2017-2019.

  5. Cleveland Clinic Why you get diarrhea, constipation (or both) during your period. Updated March 6, 2018.

  6. Jehan S, Auguste E, Hussain M, et al. Sleep and premenstrual syndromeJ Sleep Med Disord. 2016;3(5).

  7. American Cancer Society. American cancer society guideline for colorectal cancer screening. Updated November 17, 2020.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorectal (colon) cancer what should I know about screening? Updated February 10, 2020.

  9. American Cancer Society. Colorectal cancer risk factors. Updated June 29,2020.

  10. D’Alonzo M, Bounous VE, Villa M, Biglia N. Current evidence of the oncological benefit-risk profile of hormone replacement therapyMedicina (Kaunas). 2019;55(9). doi:10.3390/medicina55090573