As Nancy Robison belatedly discovered, colon cancer can strike women, too.
So entrenched was her idea that only men tend to get colon cancer, that despite her training as a licensed practical nurse, Robison, 52, of Franklin, Pennsylvania, dismissed the possibility of colorectal cancer when she began experiencing rectal bleeding and other symptoms, which she attributed to hemorrhoids.
Six months later, in mid-1997, surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic removed two large tumors from her colon, or large intestine. “People think that because there’s so much money behind breast cancer research and its talked about so much, that’s the only cancer women die of,” Robison says.
Third Leading Killer for Women
In fact, colon cancer — also known as colorectal cancer — is the third leading cancer killer among women (behind lung and breast cancer, respectively) and affects both genders at virtually identical rates. About 142,000 new cases will be diagnosed and about 51,000 people are expected to die of the disease in 2010, according to the American Cancer Society.
For people over 50, screening would prevent at least a third of deaths from colon cancer. Still, screening rates remain stubbornly low. Between 2001 and 2008, the screening rate among US adults over 50 increased from 42.5 percent to 55 percent.
How did the myth about women and colorectal cancer take root? As Robison suggests, media neglect is one likely culprit.
Cancers that strike women exclusively — ovarian, cervical, or endometrial cancer — or nearly exclusively, such as breast cancer, have commanded much of the media spotlight over the years, says Dr. Amy Halverson, a colorectal surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Yet, somewhat ironically, research shows that women with a history of ovarian or endometrial cancer, especially when it’s diagnosed at an early age, are at increased risk of developing colon cancer, too — perhaps, Halverson notes, because they have a genetic predisposition for malignancies.
It doesn’t help that bowel function is an embarrassing topic — one bordering on taboo for many people. Even if patients suspect something is wrong, they may be too embarrassed to mention it during a visit to the doctor, closing the door on early detection and treatment, says Bernard Levin, MD, chief of the Division of Cancer Prevention at the University of Texas Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
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