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 (4.3%) than in women (4%). Symptoms of colon cancer are usually the same for women and men, but symptoms in women may be mistaken for gynecological or menstrual issues.

Colon Cancer in Women

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Common Symptoms

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

You should discuss any symptoms with your healthcare provider, especially if you have risk factors, like a family history of colon cancer.

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, such as 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 71, compared with 67 in men. When you include rectal cancer, the median age is 69 for women and 66 for men.

Colon cancer is more likely to affect older women who are no longer menstruating. However, the number of people under 50 diagnosed with colorectal cancer is increasing. Between 2012 and 2016, the incidence of colorectal cancer increased by 2% every year in those younger than 50 and 1% every year in those ages 50 to 64.

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

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

When to See a Healthcare Provider

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 healthcare provider.

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

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 healthcare provider may advise beginning screening earlier.

Screening allows healthcare providers 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 healthcare provider to remove them before they become an issue. Regular screening also allows healthcare providers to find cancer in the colon early when treatments are most effective.

Even if you are under the recommended age for screening, your healthcare provider 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 healthcare provider.

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

Risk factors that can 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:

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 healthcare provider.

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 healthcare provider.

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 healthcare provider.

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.

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11 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.
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