Learning about Bowel Cancer
- Amanda Crossley, 32, was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer after her concerns about symptoms were repeatedly dismissed despite bringing up her family history of the disease.
- 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.
Crossley was 20 weeks pregnant when she first started feeling a pain above her belly button. When she went to her doctor, she was told the pain was likely cause by her “abs separating” during pregnancy.Read More
Still, her doctor told her there was no reason to worry. But the pain only got worse after her second child was born, so the doctor gave her stool softeners – that failed to work – thinking she was “probably constipated.”
“I went back every two weeks, I Googled my symptoms and I even told her that I ticked every box for bowel cancer,” she said.
But when her doctor took a week off, Crossley decided to talk to a different doctor about her symptoms who found that her iron levels were low and also suggested laxatives. That’s when Crossley “demanded more tests,” and she was sent in for a stool sample, CT scan and ultrasound.
“I knew it was cancer for sure when my doctor phoned the day after my CT scan and asked me to come in immediately,” she said.
Crossley’s suspicions were confirmed when she was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer. It was the same disease that had affected her mother, grandmother and aunt – a fact that she had shared with her doctor prior to finally arriving at the correct diagnosis. Looking back, Crossley wishes she had pushed for answers and tests sooner.
Crossley underwent surgery to remove a third of her bowel right away, and now she’s resting ahead of further treatment which will likely include chemotherapy.
“I have two little girls, I will beat this because I have no choice but to beat it,” she said. “[Doctors] explained it spread to my liver and lymph nodes but didn’t say much more. I don’t think they wanted to overload me.”
She’s since urged her sister to get checked for the disease since it’s so common in her family, and she’s sharing her story to remind others that bowel cancer is not “an old man’s disease.”
“I really as a whole do like my doctor and I think they do a good job. I just wish they had listened to me and don’t want anyone else to go through this,” she said.
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.