June 08, 2022
Colorectal cancer symptoms in women: 5 things to know
BY Cynthia DeMarco
What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer in women? Are they any different from the symptoms that men normally experience? And is it possible to mistake the abdominal pain sometimes caused by colon cancer for menstrual cramps?
For answers to these and other questions, we went to gastroenterologist David Richards, M.D.
What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer in women?
They’re actually the same for everyone, regardless of gender. The most common symptoms of colorectal cancer are blood in the stool, unintentional weight loss, and either ongoing constipation or diarrhea.
Other colorectal cancer symptoms may include:
- Excessive fatigue
- Shortness of breath or chest pain from iron-deficiency anemia
- Discomfort or the urge to have a bowel movement even when there is no need
- Abdominal pain or cramping
But people with colon cancer can also have no symptoms at all.
So, there aren’t any symptoms that are specific to women?
No. Not really. More important than gender are other risk factors, such as age, family history, and a personal history of polyps, genetic polyp and cancer syndromes, or other medical conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
What about menstrual cramps or other related issues, like bloating? Do women ever mistake colorectal cancer symptoms for those?
Cramping and bloating can come from many causes. They aren’t typically features of colon or rectal cancer, but depending on the size and location of a tumor, a patient with colon cancer might present with those symptoms.
Sometimes, it can be hard to tell where symptoms are coming from in the abdomen and pelvis. Bleeding could be either menstrual or rectal. And some conditions, like endometriosis, can cause pain, bloating, cramping, and bleeding, too. In rare cases, endometriosis can infiltrate the colon and cause bleeding there, which we can see during a colonoscopy and confirm with scans and biopsies.
I encourage women to pay attention to what their bodies are telling them. Abdominal pain could be a symptom of colorectal cancer, though it’s an uncommon one. So, if a pain seems different from what you’ve experienced before or lasts longer than a typical menstrual period, tell your doctor and get it evaluated.
What about risk factors for colorectal cancer? Does a person’s sex influence those at all?
The risk of developing many cancers increases after menopause, but only because the risk of developing any type of cancer increases as we age. That's why we encourage men and women at average risk to start getting a screening colonoscopy every 10 years, beginning at age 45.
In the U.S., the incidence of colorectal cancer is very similar between men and women. Recent studies have shown 1 in 21 men and 1 in 23 women will develop colorectal cancer in their lifetimes. Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in women.
What’s the one thing you want women to know about colorectal cancer symptoms?
Listen to your body. It’s time to see your doctor if the cramping, bloating or other issues you normally associate with your menstrual period last longer than usual, or if they’re accompanied by alarming symptoms, such as unexplained weight loss, rectal bleeding, excessive fatigue, anemia, shortness of breath, iron deficiency, etc.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Listen to your body.
David Richards, M.D.