The disease is on the rise among people born after 1990.
I need you to be honest with me for a sec: How often do you look at the toilet paper (or in the toilet bowl) after you poop? If your answer was “never,” it might be time to start.
That’s because colorectal cancer rates—a.k.a. cancers of the colon and rectum—are on the rise in among 20 to 49-year-olds, says Stacey Cohen, M.D., a medical oncologist who specializes in treating people with colorectal and other gastrointestinal cancers at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer killer in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 140,250 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2018, and that 50,630 will die from it—but it’s also highly preventable with proper screening.
Because early detection is key, the American Cancer Society is now recommending screenings begin at age 45—five years sooner than the current recommendation of age 50.
Early diagnosis is often challenging for young people, Cohen says. “In an older person with diarrhea and weight loss of nine to 10 pounds, a gastroenterologist might do a screen for colon cancer and a work-up,” says Cohen, adding that a younger patient would be told to add more fiber to their diet to address what the doctor assumes is a more benign digestive condition.
While some colon cancer symptoms in women may mirror other digestive problems, if your gut (no pun intended) tells you it’s more serious than, say reflux, press your doctor to screen you, especially if cancer runs in your family.
In the meantime, be on the lookout for these common colon cancer symptoms in women.
You’re seeing a lot of blood in your bowel movements.
A speck of bright red blood on your TP post-wipe is likely a small hemorrhoid or harmless fissure, but if there are large amounts, or you see maroon or black-tinged blood, make a doctor’s appointment right away. The latter is a sign that there’s bleeding further up in the colon, says Lisa Ganjhu, D.O., clinical associate professor, division of gastroenterology and liver diseases at NYU Langone Medical Center.
But blood isn’t always visible with colon cancer: “Blood can also be discovered on a microscopic level through colon-cancer screening tests,” says Cohen, so if you have a few other symptoms but no blood in your stool, you may still want to get checked out.
Your bathroom habits are less than ideal.
Everyone gets constipated occasionally, but prolonged problems pooping can indicate a blockage in the colon. That’s because at the beginning of the colon, your poop is soft and can maneuver around any obstacles in the way. As it progresses to the end of the colon, it firms up. If there’s a tumor at the end of the rectum, this harder waste has a hard time getting by, says Ganju.
But it’s not just constipation: Diarrhea that lasts more than a few days should also set off warning bells as a colon cancer symptom in women, adds Ganju.
You’re always dealing with cramps or bloating.
It’s normal to feel full or bloated after a big meal, but if you constantly feel like your stomach never empties out all the way (like, you never feel relief after a big BM), it’s time to see your doctor or a gastroenterologist, says Cohen.
This also goes for chronic, abdominal discomfort like bloating, cramps, or gas. If the pains are unfamiliar to you, your M.D. will want to know, says Ganjhu.
Your poop looks weird and pencil-thin.
Size (and shape) definitely matter here: If there’s something blocking your colon, your stool is forced into a narrow, ribbon-like shape to get past it. So if you look in the toilet and your poop looks kind of “stringy,” know that’s not normal and it’s a safe bet to get checked out.
You have sudden, severe stomach pains.
Knock-you-down stomach pain could be a warning sign of a bunch of things like appendicitis or gallstones, but it could also signal a bowel obstruction (when a tumor blocks food from digesting and passing out of the body).
Either way, it’s time to head to the ER. Left untreated, an obstruction can lead to bleeding and perforation of the bowel, says Cohen.
You can’t kick your chronic acid reflux.
“Chronic” is the key word here, so don’t freak if you get a little burning after you load up on salsa. But, if you regularly suffer from reflux, and over-the-counter or prescription acid reducers don’t seem to be making a dent, talk with your health-care provider. A tumor could be causing a blockage and increasing acid back-up, says Cohen.
You’re iron deficient and are losing weight unintentionally.
Low iron can be a colon cancer symptom in women, stemming from blood loss in the digestive tract. If blood test results show your iron levels are less than stellar, talk it over with your doctor. Weakness and fatigue may be part of the mix, too, adds Cohen.
Unexplained weight loss factors in here, too: If you’re not trying to lose weight, but you find yourself dropping pounds without explanation, your doctor definitely needs to know, says Cohen.
Your doctor keeps treating you for “irritable bowel syndrome” but something still feels off.
The symptoms of IBS—and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), for that matter—can often have similar symptoms to colorectal cancer (cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation). But if you’re being treated for IBS and your symptoms aren’t clearing up, it’s important to address those concerns with your doctor.