Learning about Colorectal Cancer
- Paula Chambers Raney was 43 when she struggled with diarrhea, painful gas and a gurgling stomach. Unfortunately, doctors kept misdiagnosing her for a long time. Eventually, her symptoms got so bad she was forced to go directly to a hospital where she was finally diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
- The term colorectal cancer is used to describe cancers that begin in the colon or the rectum – so some people just use the term colon cancer if that’s where the disease began. The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that colorectal cancer screenings begin at age 45, but if you have concerns about your risk you should talk to your doctor.
- Symptoms of colorectal cancer can include 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 and unintended weight loss.
Raney first experienced her colorectal cancer symptoms in 2014, and they took a huge toll. At the time, she and her partner, Lara, were planning their wedding, and Raney had just begun working at a new job.Read More
She also found out she had very low iron while trying to donate blood. But doctors figured her iron levels were related to her menstrual cycle or diet. By the time of her wedding in October, she also had lost about 40 pounds.
“I look at the pictures now, I was kind of gray, because I was anemic and I was really sick, but I didn’t know,” she said.
The next day she started sweating, shaking and feeling nauseous while the room she was in started spinning. She even “had an accident like I’ve never had before” that same day.
With all of these serious symptoms, it began hard for Raney to attend work. She eventually got fired – right before her health insurance would begin – and still had no answers for her myriad of symptoms. Even when she saw blood in her stool in November, Raney said doctors thought she “probably just ate something red.” Other answers her doctors came up with before her correct diagnosis included a stomach bug, acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome. She was even prescribed carious medications, but nothing seemed to help.
“I was taking whatever the doctor said. Of course you’re like, ‘OK, that sounds good to me, you’re the doctor,'” Raney told Insider. “I don’t do that anymore, by the way.”
By the time she finally convinced doctors to take a stool sample in January 2015, her symptoms had only gotten worse.
“I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, my right side — I’ve never had pain like this in my life,” Raney said. “And you have to understand by now, most folks aren’t listening to me. Most folks think I’m crazy. Most folks think I’m a hypochondriac. And even my wife is kind of sick of it.”
“I’m not putting anybody down… I’m just saying this is probably how a lot of people get misdiagnosed or just don’t wanna say anything about what’s wrong with them, because after a while, you start thinking you’re crazy.”
The following week, Raney fell to the floor, hit her head and produced blood in her stool. That’s when she ended up going to the hospital where doctors would finally give her the correct diagnosis after finding a baseball-sized tumor in her colon: colorectal cancer.
For treatment, she immediately underwent a successful surgery to remove the tumor along with 34 lymph nodes and 23 centimeters of Raney’s colon just three days after her 45th birthday. Now, she’s a a 53-year-old advocate with the organization Fight Colorectal Cancer trying to make a difference. She wants young people to know what colorectal cancer symptoms can look like, take advantage of screening opportunities and advocate for themselves.
“I wish I’d had the voice to say, ‘Can I see another doctor? Is there some other test you can do?’ I didn’t think I had the authority. I had no money, I had didn’t have insurance. I didn’t know that I probably had some options,” Raney said. “I just try to remember all that pain and all that we went through… and I try to take that pain and turn it into action.”
Understanding Colorectal Cancer
The term colorectal cancer is used to describe cancers that begin in the colon or the rectum – so some people just use the term colon cancer if that’s where the disease began.
Colorectal 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 Colorectal Cancer
Colorectal 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 Colorectal 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.