Sometimes we need to discuss topics that may be hard to talk about for some women. Who likes to talk about their daily bathroom habits? But this month we need to discuss colorectal cancer openly. One in twenty-three women are likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer at some point in their life. When you combine the incidences of men and women with colorectal cancer, it is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths. The good news is screenings and early detection can improve your chance of survival. The American Cancer Society reports that “The 5-year relative survival rate for people with stage I colon cancer is about 92%.”
What is Colorectal Cancer?
With colorectal cancer we need to focus on the large intestine. When we talk about parts of the large intestine, the colon is the long tube that attaches to your small intestine and to your rectum. The rectum is the last segment of your large intestine and attaches to your anus. If cancer starts in the colon, it is called colon cancer and if it begins in the rectum it is called rectal cancer. The term colorectal cancer can be used to describe either of these types of cancer.
What Puts Women at Risk for Colorectal Cancer?
Many things. For example, a personal or family history of polyps or colorectal cancer. Also, history of inflammatory bowel disease. Other factors that could influence colorectal cancer include the following:
- Age: Women over 50 can have precancerous polyps. The Cleveland Clinic reports “Precancerous polyps can affect 40% of the adults over the age of 60.”
- Alcohol: The American Cancer Society states “Alcohol use has been linked with a higher risk of cancers of the colon and rectum. In the colon and rectum, bacteria can convert alcohol into large amounts of acetaldehyde, a chemical that has been shown to cause cancer in lab animals”. (Cancer.org)
- Smoking: Recent studies have reported that the more years a woman has smoked and the more packs of cigarettes she smokes a year, the greater her risk of developing colorectal cancer. Women who are addicted to nicotine have smoked for over 40 years have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.
- Obesity: Women who are indulging in a diet that is high in sugar and low in fiber do run a greater risk of developing colorectal cancer. Having a higher BMI (Body Mass Index) is associated with an increased chance of colorectal cancer.
Symptoms You Should Not Ignore
Even though it may sound offensive, you do need to pay attention to your bowels and bowel movements. Some women may never have symptoms of colorectal cancer, thus having a screening when ordered by your physician can prevent cancer. But if you notice changes such as constipation, diarrhea, or narrowing of the stools it is good to discuss your symptoms with your physician. Another sign is blood in the stool. While we know that women can have hemorrhoids, and that some foods such as beets can change the color of the stool, it is still important to discuss this sign with your physician. Pay attention to any abdominal pain, fatigue or weight loss and report these to your physician as well.
Screenings and Tests
Your physician will discuss what screenings or tests that you will have to rule out colorectal cancer. Screenings that are used by the medical community are:
- Colonoscopy: With the use of a flexible tube fitted with a lens, physicians can observe and remove tissue from the colon or rectum. Sedation is used on the patient during this procedure. Colorectal cancer deaths have been reduced by a whopping 60 to 70% with this test.
- FOBT (fecal occult blood test): Due to the fact that polyps can bleed, a highsensitivity fecal occult blood tests is used as a screener for women. It is used for women over the age of 50 until age 80. Reductions of up to 33% of colorectal cancer deaths have been attributed to this type of screening. Several types of FOBT tests exist and your healthcare provider will share information on the type
that is best for your age or symptoms.
- Sigmoidoscopy: During a sigmoidoscopy, a small, flexible tube is used to examine the colon and rectum. “Studies have shown that people who have regular screenings with sigmoidoscopy after age 50 years have a 60 to 70 percent lower risk of death due to cancer of the rectum and lower colon than people who do not have screening”. (New England Journal of Medicine, 2012)
Boost Your Health to Fight Colorectal Cancer
I want you to adopt healthy habits in order to fight off colorectal cancer. Find the time to exercise every week. Add fiber to your diet by adding delicious fruits and vegetables. If you smoke, find a cessation program. If you drink, especially in excess, talk to your health care provider to find a pathway to sobriety. A heart to heart with your physician will ease your mind and give the physician a chance to determine at what age and type of screenings you require. These choices can greatly reduce your chances of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
Because it all begins with a healthy woman…
Sue Ann Thompson is founder and president of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation (WWHF), a statewide non-profit organization whose mission is to help Wisconsin women and their families reach their healthiest potential. WWHF provides programs and conducts forums that focus on education, prevention, and early detection; connects individuals to health resources; produces and distributes the most up-to-date health education and resource materials; and, awards grants and scholarships to women health researchers and related community non-profits. To learn more, visit wwhf.org or call 1-800-448-5148.