Learning about Bowel Cancer
- Michelle Grant, 44, suffered from constipation and bloody stools prior to her bowel cancer diagnosis.
- But, for quite some time, doctors dismissed her symptoms as side effect of a medication she was on.
- Symptoms of bowel (colorectal) cancer can include a change in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation 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, blood in the stool, cramping or abdominal pain and fatigue.
- Most colorectal cancers can be prevented early with screening, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about what screening should look like for you.
Grant, 44, was shocked when she first suffered from a seizure. But doctors didn’t have answers for her when test results came back all clear. Another seizure arrived just a few months later in 2020. But this time, doctors decided a medication was necessary moving forward.Read More
It was only then that a colonoscopy revealed the truth: stage 2 bowel cancer.
“The consultant was baffled that it hadn’t shown in my iron because bowel cancer usually shows in your iron in your bloods, but it hadn’t come up. So, he said he thought it was [caught] early,” she said. “I was lucky, really, but I think if I hadn’t have pushed it and pushed it I wouldn’t have gotten it so early. I wanted to show people that if your body doesn’t feel right to [get checked out].”
For treatment, she had the cancerous tumor, her womb, cervix and 11 lymph nodes surgically removed. As a result, she had a temporary stoma for a year until it was reversed in November 2022. A colostomy or ileostomy is a procedure where part of your intestines are hooked up through the front of your belly,. The opening is called a stoma, and you go to the bathroom through a bag that attaches to your skin. This bag is called a stoma bag or an ostomy bag.
“I Began to Embrace it”: How One Survivor Learned to Live with a Colostomy Bag
“You’re not in control of your bowel but I just embraced it,” she said of her stoma bag. “It’s a bit weird getting used to fitted clothes again because I was wearing baggy clothes.”
Now a bowel cancer survivor, Grant hopes her story can be used as an educational resource.
“I recently have just had my two year CT scans and they have come back clear,” she said. “It’s been a whirlwind. But I wanted to raise awareness because bowel cancer, if you leave it so late, is one of the biggest killers.”
What Is Bowel Cancer?
Bowel cancer generally refers to cancer that begins in the large bowel, but people in the United States tend to use the term colorectal cancer – or colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on the location of the cancer.
Colorectal cancer might not immediately cause symptoms, but there are signs to look out for. And people of all ages should be aware of them, especially since the patient population is shifting younger. In fact, a recently published report in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians that outlines up-to-date colorectal cancer statistics says “one in five new cases” are now occurring in people in their early 50s or younger.
The Rate of Colon Cancer Is Increasing in People under 50
“Colon cancer in the United States, across all age groups, has been decreasing over the last 20 years,” colorectal surgeon Dr. Heather Yeo previously told SurvivorNet. “And that’s most likely due to screening of colonoscopy.
“However, the only age group it’s not been going down in is the age group under 50.”
So, regardless of age, it’s important for people to look out for signs of the disease. Possible bowel cancer symptoms 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
- Unintended weight loss
Grant had experienced both significant changes in bowel habits and blood in her stool.
“You Shouldn’t Die From Embarrassment”: Colon Cancer Can Be Prevented
Displaying one or more of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have colorectal cancer, and you could also have colorectal cancer and not display any of these symptoms. Regardless, it’s crucial to bring up any symptoms to your doctor should they arise.
In addition, colorectal cancer prevention and early diagnosis depends greatly on screening. Given the increase in colorectal cancer cases in people under 50, the United States Preventive Services Task Force has updated its colorectal cancer screening recommendations to begin at age 45 instead of 50.
RELATED: New Research Shows More and More Young People Ages 20-39 Are Getting Late-Stage Colorectal Cancer; What’s Going On?
“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.”
Whites and Asians are significantly more likely to be up to date with their colonoscopies than African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. So, increasing access is a crucial step in addressing racial disparities within the world of colorectal cancer.
RELATED: Why Do So Few Black Men Get Colon Cancer Screenings?
People should also talk with their doctor about their individual colorectal cancer risk because research suggests tailoring screening recommendations based on your lifestyle and family history may be beneficial.
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