Learning about Bowel Cancer
- Starting when Hollie Owens was 24, her stomach issues were dismissed by doctors as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or “girl problems” for years. But once she was finally given a colonoscopy, doctors discovered she had bowel cancer that had spread to her liver. Thankfully, she’s a cancer-free mom today.
- Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel, but generally we use the term colorectal cancer in the United States.
- One of our experts emphasizes the importance of colorectal cancer screenings such as colonoscopies because most colorectal cancers can be prevented early with screening.
- Possible symptoms of bowel cancer to look out for include a change in bowel habits, a feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that’s not relieved by having one, rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, cramping or belly pain, weakness and fatigue and unintended weight loss.
- Being your own advocate can be key to getting a correct cancer diagnosis and obtaining the best treatment possible while dealing with a diagnosis.
When Owens first started having cancer symptoms, she was feeling bloated every time she ate, having ongoing stomach aches and struggling with painful cramps. Sadly, multiple doctors attributed her symptoms to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or “girl problems.”Read More
In addition, her blood tests didn’t show any red flags besides the fact that her white blood cell count was low. So, her stomach issues continued for another two years before she was finally booked for a colonoscopy.
“I’ll never forget the look on the doctor’s face after I woke up from the procedure. He handed me the tissues then said ‘I think you have cancer,'” Owens said. “I didn’t believe it and wasn’t present at all.”
After a follow-up CT scan, the nearly 6 inch tumor was confirmed to be cancerous. Treatment included a surgery to remove almost 12 inches of her colon, but that operation revealed that her cancer had spread to her liver.
Hesitant to remove the liver cancer right then, doctors decided to wait four months before performing that second surgery. In order to “mop up” any cancer that could have been missed, Owens later underwent chemotherapy.
“Chemotherapy was absolutely horrible, I had an allergic reaction to it, it messes with your body so much and kills both the good and bad cells,” she said. “I couldn’t touch or eat anything cold, felt exhausted and kept vomiting but luckily had no hair loss. I hated it and every cycle the side effects were so different.”
Thankfully, a later PET scan in 2012 gave Owens the most wonderful news: she was cancer-free!
“The nurse called me and told me the bad news is she wouldn’t be seeing me anymore because I’m cancer-free,” she said. “It was such a special day and a huge relief.”
Moving forward from there, Owens made a point to process all the emotions her cancer journey had brought her.
“I travelled, did some spiritual healing, went out into nature, trained to be a PT and really just cracked myself wide open to process everything,” she explained.
Now, the 34-year-old mother wants others to learn from her story.
“Looking back, I was dismissed because of my age and the fact that bowel disease is considered to be an ‘old person’s disease,'” she said. “If I wasn’t persistent I wouldn’t be here today.
“I really want to emphasize that no one is too young for any cancer and want to give hope to others going through the same journey because it can be so overwhelming and scary… Don’t ignore symptoms, get checked if you think something isn’t right and advocate for your health.”
Understanding Bowel Cancer
Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel, but generally we use the term colorectal cancer – or colon cancer or rectal cancer depending on the location of the cancer – in the United States.
Bowel cancer, like all cancers, presents its own unique challenges for patients on the road to recovery. But Dr. Heather Yeo, a surgical oncologist and colorectal surgeon at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, wants to remind people how far the treatment of this disease has come.
“One of the most exciting things about my job is that we’ve made a lot of progress on treatment options,” Dr. Yeo says in a previous interview with SurvivorNet. “However, patients are still — while they’re living longer, they are still living with colon cancer, and so I think it’s really important that we talk about how some of the things in your life affect you.”
Symptoms of Bowel Cancer
Colorectal (bowel) cancer might not immediately cause symptoms, but these are possible symptoms to look out for:
- A change in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that’s not relieved by having one
- Rectal bleeding with bright red blood
- Blood in the stool which might make the stool look dark brown or black
- Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain
- Weakness and fatigue
- Unintended weight loss
It is important to note, however, that displaying some of these symptoms does not mean you have colorectal cancer. You could also have colorectal cancer and not display any of these symptoms. Regardless, it is important to bring up any symptoms to your doctor should they arise.
Screening for Bowel Cancer
Dr. Yeo also emphasizes the importance of colorectal cancer screenings such as colonoscopies because most colorectal cancers can be prevented early with screening.
“In the United States, on a national level, colorectal cancer has been decreasing for the last 20 years,” Dr. Yeo says. “And much of that is thought to be directly due to screening for colon cancer.”
Even still, colorectal cancer cases are rising among younger people. And in the United States alone, rates have increased every year from 2011 to 2016 by 2 percent among people younger than 50. Because of this increase, the United States Preventive Services Task Force has recently updated its colorectal cancer screening recommendations to begin at age 45 instead of 50.
“We know that colon cancers can be prevented when polyps are found early,” Dr. Yeo said. “Lowering the screening age helps somewhat with this. But access to care is a real problem.”
And increasing access is crucial to making sure that we don’t see racial disparities within the world of colorectal cancer. Whites and Asians are significantly more likely to be up to date with their colonoscopies than African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.
Research suggests that tailoring colorectal cancer screenings to each person’s individual risk may be beneficial. If you are not yet 45 but have concerns about your risk, talk to your doctor. Ask about your individual risk based on your lifestyle and family history and find out when screenings would be right for you.
Advocating for Your Health
Whether you are currently battling cancer or worried that you might have it, it’s always important to advocate for your health. Cancer is an incredibly serious disease, and you have every right to insist that your doctors investigate any possible signs of cancer.
And, as we saw in the case of Hollie Owens, it’s always crucial to speak up about any changes to your health and trust your instincts when you feel like there might be something wrong.
“Every appointment you leave as a patient, there should be a plan for what the doc is going to do for you, and if that doesn’t work, what the next plan is,” Dr. Zuri Murrell, director of the Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “And I think that that’s totally fair. And me as a health professional – that’s what I do for all of my patients.”
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, April Knowles explained how she became a breast cancer advocate after her doctor dismissed the lump in her breast as a side effect of her menstrual period. Unfortunately, that dismissal was a mistake. Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She said the experience taught her the importance of listening to her body and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.
“I wanted my doctor to like me,” she said. “I think women, especially young women, are really used to being dismissed by their doctors.”
Figuring out whether or not you actually have cancer based on possible symptoms is critical because early detection may help with treatment and outcomes. Seeking multiple opinions is one way to ensure you’re getting the care and attention you need.
Another thing to remember is that not all doctors are in agreement. Recommendations for further testing or treatment options can vary, and sometimes it’s essential to talk with multiple medical professionals.