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Not Just a Man's Disease

Published on 16 March 2016 back to previous

Colorectal cancer is not just a man's disease - it's the third most common cancer in women behind lung and breast - and not just among the elderly [1]. In fact, colorectal cancer diagnoses are becoming increasingly common in individuals younger than 50 [2].

Colorectal cancer is the growth of abnormal cancerous cells in the lower part of the colon that connects the anus to the large bowel. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 135,000 cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed annually. Colorectal cancer tends to develop very slowly -- over a period of 10 to 20 years -- beginning as a noncancerous growth called a polyp that develops on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. An estimated 5 percent (or 1 in 20) of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer of the colon or rectum in their lifetime [2].

Ashley Oliver was that 1 in 20. 

Oliver, an active mother of two young daughters, began experiencing symptoms after her 30th birthday. She suffered repeated bouts of stomach pain and physical exhaustion, growing more persistent and severe by the month -- typical of colorectal cancer. A colonoscopy nearly a year after her symptoms first began confirmed the diagnosis: Oliver had colorectal cancer. 

"Following my diagnosis I was scared -- afraid I wouldn't be able to do all of the things I loved to do," Oliver said. "I wondered how I would be able to do things with my children, such as swimming, playing outside, and going to the beach. It was a very upsetting time." 

Treatment for colorectal cancer can be complicated in patients whose cancer is situated closer to the rectum than the colon (often referred to as rectal cancer) [2]. Radiotherapy, which uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells, is often used to treat colorectal cancer, shrinking tumors and lessening risk of the cancer returning. 

Oliver pursued a six-week radiotherapy treatment option, enabling her doctors to shrink her tumor to undetectable levels and ultimately preserve her quality of life. 

"I was nervous and apprehensive about my ability and strength to endure treatment, but I think radiotherapy was a great option for me and would afford me the best possible outcome," Oliver said. 

Radiotherapy is an effective treatment option, but prior to diagnosis, screening remains a reliable option for reducing colorectal cancer mortality, decreasing the incidence of disease, and increasing the likelihood of survival. Colonoscopies are an especially vital tool in screening for and preventing colorectal cancer. Typically, the American Cancer Society recommends beginning screening at age 50 for both women and men, then getting a colonoscopy every 10 years or a virtual colonoscopy every five years [3]. Individuals with increased risk should begin screening before age 50 and be screened more often -- talk to your health care provider to determine just how often is right for you. 

Individuals at increased or high risk include: 

• Personal history of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps
• Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease)
• Strong family history of colorectal cancer or polyps 
• Known family history of a hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome [3]. 

If you think you may be at increased risk for colorectal cancer, talk to your health care provider about when and how often to start screening. 

The Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR) is dedicated to promoting research on biological sex differences in medicine -- including the vast sex differences that exist in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Learn more about these differences here, and find more resources on colorectal cancer here

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