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7 signs of colon cancer in women

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on June 15, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Although colon cancer (also referred to as colorectal cancer) can develop at any age in adults, it typically affects women and men who are age 50+. Among women, the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 25. It can cause a number of different signs and symptoms—so read through the list below if you’d like to find out more about the possible signs of colon cancer in women. (You’ll also learn more about colon cancer screening—something you can do at home with the Everlywell FIT Colon Cancer Screening Test.)

1. Unexplained rectal bleeding

It’s always important to pay attention to rectal bleeding (and alert your healthcare provider that you’re experiencing this), which can be caused by a number of possible factors—including hemorrhoids, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis. Rectal bleeding can also be a sign of colorectal cancer, especially if it’s bright or dark red in color. You may not always see blood in your stool, however— and in some cases, the stool might just look darker than usual or completely normal.

2. Iron deficiency anemia

Anemia caused by an iron deficiency is one of the possible signs of colon cancer in women. Colon cancer can result in iron deficiency anemia through blood loss during bowel movements and reduced gut absorption of dietary sources of iron.

In general, iron deficiency anemia doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms. In some cases, however, symptoms may include pallor (more pale-looking skin), fatigue, and shortness of breath.

3. Bowel habit changes

A change in bowel habits is among the possible early signs of bowel cancer in women. Bowel habit changes that may indicate colon cancer include narrow, ribbon-like stools; more frequent bowel movements; and looser stool.


Related: What can cause a change in bowel habits?


4. Tenesmus

Tenesmus is a recurring, often painful urge to defecate—but no (or very little) stool passes. This is another potential sign of colon cancer.

5. Abdominal pain

Abdominal pain, bloating, and nausea are also potential signs of colon cancer in women. These symptoms can occur after you eat and can be so uncomfortable that they cause a reduction in food intake (and eventual weight loss).

6. Weakness and fatigue

Those occasional feelings of weakness and fatigue happen to us all. But if you’re often exhausted, even when you’ve gotten enough shut-eye, it’s worth bringing this up to your healthcare provider as this may be a sign of a health condition—including colon cancer.

7. Unexplained weight loss

Sudden and unexplained weight loss is another one of the signs of colon cancer in women. So if you notice a sudden dip in the scale—and you’re not intentionally trying to lose weight—discuss this with your healthcare provider. It may be an indicator of colon cancer or some other health condition that should be treated.

Later signs of colon cancer in women

When cancerous growths metastasize—spreading to other areas of the body—patients may experience various symptoms. Here’s a list of some possible symptoms based on the part of the body that the cancer has spread to.

Bones

When bones are affected, signs may include fractures, pain, constipation, or high calcium levels. It’s rare, however, for colon cancer to spread to one’s bones.

Lungs

Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath—as well as coughing, pain, and fatigue—are possible symptoms when colon cancer has spread to one’s lungs.

Liver

When the liver is affected, symptoms may include fever, fatigue, anorexia, abdominal pain, a change in bowel movements, weight loss, and blood in stool.

Lymph nodes

Bloating, a swollen belly, and a loss of appetite are among the possible symptoms one may experience when colon cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

Brain

Symptoms may include headache, vertigo, blurred vision, and hemiparesis (paralysis or muscle weakness occurring on one side of the body).

Screening for colon cancer

Colorectal cancer typically develops from precancerous growths in the colon—known as “polyps”—which can often be detected with screening tests. Once identified, they can be removed to prevent colorectal cancer.

When should you screen for colon cancer? This largely depends on one’s age. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends routine screening every year for women and men in the 50-75 age range (for those at average risk). This is because the risk for colon cancer is particularly high for people in this age range compared to younger populations.


Related: Who is at risk for colon cancer?


Screening tests can include a colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, or fecal occult blood test (FOBT) such as a fecal immunochemical test (FIT). Fortunately, non-invasive screening for colon cancer can be done from the comfort and privacy of home with our at-home colon cancer screening test. Simple sample collection and results you can easily share with your healthcare provider make this a convenient option for routine screenings.


References

1. Basic Information About Colorectal Cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed June 15, 2020.

2. Rectal bleeding. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed June 15, 2020.

3. Wilson MJ, Dekker JWT, Harlaar JJ, Jeekel J, Schipperus M, Zwaginga JJ. The role of preoperative iron deficiency in colorectal cancer patients: prevalence and treatment. Int J Colorectal Dis. 2017;32(11):1617-1624. doi:10.1007/s00384-017-2898-1

4. Anemia, Iron Deficiency. StatPearls. URL. Accessed June 15, 2020.

5. Tenesmus. Human Phenotype Ontology. URL. Accessed June 15, 2020.

6. Colorectal Cancer Management. In: Kufe DW, Pollock RE, Weichselbaum RR, et al., ed. Hamilton (ON): BC Decker; 2003.

7. Vardy JL, Dhillon HM, Pond GR, et al. Fatigue in people with localized colorectal cancer who do and do not receive chemotherapy: a longitudinal prospective study. Ann Oncol. 2016;27(9):1761-1767. doi:10.1093/annonc/mdw252

8. Riihimäki M, Hemminki A, Sundquist J, Hemminki K. Patterns of metastasis in colon and rectal cancer. Sci Rep. 2016;6:29765. Published 2016 Jul 15. doi:10.1038/srep29765

9. Baek SJ, Hur H, Min BS, Baik SH, Lee KY, Kim NK. The Characteristics of Bone Metastasis in Patients with Colorectal Cancer: A Long-Term Report from a Single Institution. World J Surg. 2016;40(4):982-986. doi:10.1007/s00268-015-3296-x

10. Villeneuve PJ, Sundaresan RS. Surgical management of colorectal lung metastasis. Clin Colon Rectal Surg. 2009;22(4):233-241. doi:10.1055/s-0029-1242463

11. Valderrama-Treviño AI, Barrera-Mera B, Ceballos-Villalva JC, Montalvo-Javé EE. Hepatic Metastasis from Colorectal Cancer. Euroasian J Hepatogastroenterol. 2017;7(2):166-175. doi:10.5005/jp-journals-10018-1241

12. Kim HJ, Choi GS. Clinical Implications of Lymph Node Metastasis in Colorectal Cancer: Current Status and Future Perspectives. Ann Coloproctol. 2019;35(3):109-117. doi:10.3393/ac.2019.06.12

13. Damiens K, Ayoub JP, Lemieux B, et al. Clinical features and course of brain metastases in colorectal cancer: an experience from a single institution. Curr Oncol. 2012;19(5):254-258. doi:10.3747/co.19.1048