Colon cancer is often grouped with rectal cancer. These two types of cancer may be referred to as colorectal cancer.

The main difference between colon and rectal cancer is whether cancer polyps first form in the colon or the rectum.

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both women and men. Though the risk is slightly lower for women than men, about 1 in 25 U.S. women are at risk for developing this cancer.

Colon cancer remains the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths among women and men combined, though experts believe deaths could be prevented with screening and early diagnosis.

Read on to learn how this condition affects women, plus symptoms and what to expect during treatment.

Colon cancer starts as a tiny growth in the inner wall of the colon. These growths are called polyps.

Polyps are usually benign (noncancerous), but when a cancerous polyp does form, cancer cells can move into the lining of the colon or rectum and spread. Cancer cells can also enter the bloodstream and lymph system.

In its early stages, colon cancer may have no noticeable symptoms.

When they do occur, signs of colon cancer in women tend to be the same as those seen in men, and can include:

Colon cancer symptoms vs. symptoms related to menstruation

Some symptoms of colon cancer may be easy to mistake for symptoms related to your menstrual cycle. For example, feeling unusually tired or lacking energy are common symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

These are also symptoms of anemia, which you may experience if you lose a lot of blood during your menstrual period.

Likewise, abdominal cramps associated with colon cancer may be mistaken for menstrual cramps. The cramps may also be mistaken for symptoms of endometriosis.

Talk to your doctor if you regularly experience fatigue or abdominal pain that’s not related to your menstrual cycle, or if you’re experiencing these symptoms for the first time — even if they’re aligned with your menstrual cycle.

You should also talk to your doctor if these symptoms feel different from what you normally experience around your menstrual period.

Most of the same factors that raise the risk of colon cancer for men are the same for women.

Among these risks are:

  • Increased age. Risk tends to climb significantly after the age of 50, though younger people can develop colon cancer, too.
  • Personal history of polyps. If you’ve had benign polyps in the past, you face higher risks of cancerous polyps forming later on. Having had colon cancer also puts you at a higher risk of a new cancerous polyp forming.
  • Family history of colon cancer or polyps. Having a parent, sibling, or other close relative with colon cancer or a history of polyps makes you more likely to develop colon cancer.
  • Radiation treatment. If you’ve received radiation therapy to treat cancers in the abdominal area, including cervical cancer, you may be at a higher risk for colon or rectal cancer.
  • Unhealthy lifestyle. Being sedentary or obese, smoking, and drinking alcohol excessively all can raise your risk. Women are advised to have no more than one alcoholic drink per day.

After menopause, a woman’s risk of all cancers increase.

While hormone replacement therapy (HRT) (used to manage symptoms of menopause) increases the risk for some cancers, it’s actually associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer.

More research is still necessary, however. Discuss the pros and cons of HRT with your doctor before beginning therapy.

You may also be at increased risk for developing a kind of colon cancer called hereditary polyposis colon cancer (HPCC), or Lynch syndrome, if you have a history of cancer of the endometrium and are a carrier for the MMR gene mutation.

The MMR gene mutation has been linked to HPCC. Lynch syndrome accounts for about 2 to 4 percent of all colorectal cases.

For adults age 50-75 who are at a risk of colon cancer of 3% or above, The American College of Physicians recommends fecal immunochemical testing (FIT) or high sensitivity guaiac-based fecal occult blood testing every 2 years, a colonoscopy every 10 years, or a sigmoidoscopy every 10 years plus FIT every 2 years.

These tests are used to screen for colon cancer. Use this risk calculator to determine your own risk level.

A colonoscopy is a procedure in which a long, flexible tube (colonoscope) is inserted into the anus and extended up into the colon. The tip of the tube contains a tiny camera that sends images that the doctor can see on a nearby computer screen.

Any polyps that are discovered can then be removed with special tools that are passed through the colonoscope. The polyps are analyzed in a lab to determine if any cancer cells are present. This part of the process is known as a biopsy.

If results from the biopsy indicate that cancer is present, additional tests or screenings may be performed:

  • A gene test may be done to help identify the exact type of cancer, because that could help guide treatment decisions.
  • A computed tomography (CT) scan of the tissue near the colon can help your doctor see if the cancer has spread.
  • Ultrasounds, which use sound waves, can create computer images of tissue in the body.

A colonoscopy is a standard screening test that both women and men should have starting at age 50, unless you have a higher risk because of family history or another reason.

For women at increased risk for colon cancer, you doctor may recommend starting screening earlier.

If no polyps are found during a colonoscopy, then colonoscopies should continue every 10 years. If one or more polyps are found, you’re doctor may recommend screening again earlier depending on your risk factors.

However, the guidelines for screenings change occasionally and there are sometimes differing recommendations between experts, so be sure to talk with your doctor about your risks and how often you should have a colonoscopy.

There are three main types of colon cancer treatment:


In its early stages, colon cancer may be treated by simply removing the cancerous polyps.

When the disease progresses, more tissue or parts of the colon may need to be removed.

Systemic therapies

During chemotherapy, powerful medications, often administered through an IV, kills cancer cells. It’s often recommended if the cancer has reached the lymph nodes.

Sometimes chemotherapy is started before surgery to help shrink the tumor or tumors.

Targeted therapies or immunotherapies may also be recommended and can be used alone or in conjunction with chemotherapy.

Radiation therapy

During radiation therapy, powerful energy beams such as X-rays, are aimed at cancerous tumors to shrink or destroy them.

Radiation therapy is sometimes done in conjunction with chemotherapy, and may be recommended prior to surgery.

The survival rate for colon cancer is the same for women and men. The main factor affecting survival rate is how far the cancer has spread. Your age and overall health are also important factors.

In general, localized colon cancer — meaning that the cancer hasn’t spread beyond the colon or rectum — has a 5-year survival rate of 90 percent.

The five-year survival rate for cancer that’s spread into nearby lymph nodes or other tissue is 71 percent. Colon cancer that has spread farther in the body has a much lower survival rate.

When reading survival rate statistics, it’s important to keep in mind that treatment for cancer is constantly evolving. The treatments available today may be more advanced than those available 5 years ago.

While survival rates can give you some general information, they don’t tell the whole story.

Plus, every person’s situation is different. It’s a good idea to discuss your outlook with your doctor since they’ll be most familiar with the progression of your cancer and your treatment plan.

Unlike some other types of cancer, colon cancer can usually be spotted early through routine screenings and treated before it spreads.

Talk with your healthcare provider about when to schedule a colonoscopy and be sure to report any symptoms promptly for further evaluation.

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