- Florida nurse Bailey McBreen, 25, went viral recently after sharing the story of her cancer diagnosis.
- McBreen said that nonstop burping was the start of the symptoms that would lead to her stage 3 colon cancer diagnosis.
- Though uncommon, it's possible that excessive burping could be a symptom of a bowel obstruction, which could be caused by a tumor in the colon, as it was in McBreen's case.
The story of a Florida nurse’s colon cancer diagnosis went viral earlier this month, after she revealed an unusual symptom linked to her disease: nonstop burping.
In an interview with NeedtoKnow, Bailey McBreen, now 25, shared that she first noticed the uncommon symptom in 2021. “I would burp five to 10 times a day,” she told the outlet. “This was not normal for me. I actually rarely ever burped before, and that is why I noticed how weird it was.”
McBreen said she initially brushed off her symptoms, but starting February 2022, other more worrisome symptoms started popping up, including acid reflux—which was dismissed by doctors as a symptom of anxiety—followed by “excruciating” pain, loss of appetite, and inability to go to the bathroom.
As a nurse, McBreen suspected her symptoms were the result of an intestinal obstruction—and she was right: a CT scan revealed McBreen had a tumor obstructing her large intestine, which was later confirmed to be stage 3 colon cancer.
“Excessive burping isn’t your textbook sign of colon cancer, but my oncologist told me that it was likely the start of my symptoms,” McBreen told the outlet. “GERD was a symptom in my case because my tumor was slowly causing a complete bowel obstruction.”
According to a GoFundMe page created for her, McBreen needed surgery to have the tumor removed along with part of her colon and her appendix. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy, and is using her experience to urge others to pay attention to their bodies.
“Anything that is new to you, even if it’s otherwise considered a normal thing, needs to be addressed,” McBreen told the outlet. “I didn’t think anything of my burping, because it was a ‘normal’ thing. It’s important to listen to your body.”
When Does Constipation Become an Emergency?
Can Burping Really Be a Sign of Colon Cancer?
Although burping can be an indirect symptom of colon cancer, experts stress that it's a rare occurrence.
“Burping is a very nonspecific symptom,” Anton Bilchik, MD, PhD, surgical oncologist and division chair of general surgery at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, told Health. “Most people diagnosed with colon cancer have few symptoms and burping is not a common symptom of colon cancer.”
If excessive burping is linked to a colon cancer diagnosis, it’s likely the result of a manifestation of colon cancer, like a blockage of a persons’ bowels.
“We can imagine our digestive system as a plumbing system,” Tiago Biachi, MD, PhD, a gastrointestinal oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center, told Health. “If any blockage, as a bowel obstruction, occurs, food and digestive fluids will build up beyond that point.”
If the obstruction persists—as it would in the case of a tumor blocking the bowel—it can cause symptoms including nausea, feeling full soon after eating, reflux, and burping, Dr. Biachi said.
The location of colon cancer in younger patients—commonly on the left side of the colon—may also make it more likely for a bowel obstruction to occur. “Given that the left side of the colon is narrower compared to the right, it is more common to present with obstructive symptoms,” Dr. Biachi said.
Still, physicians stress that you’re much more likely to have other, more urgent symptoms if a bowel obstruction is due to colon cancer. “I usually associate nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain more highly with colon cancer,” Ursina Teitelbaum, MD, a medical oncologist at Penn Medicine’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Program, told Health.
Study Identifies 4 'Red Flag' Symptoms of Colon Cancer in Younger People
Other Signs and Symptoms of Colon Cancer
Although burping is not a common sign of colon cancer—and burping alone is unlikely to be linked to a serious diagnosis—any persistent new symptom when paired with other “red flag” colorectal cancer symptoms may be cause for concern, Dr. Biachi said.
Colorectal cancer may not cause symptoms in earlier stages, but if symptoms appear, or if the disease has progressed to later stages, the signs of cancer can include:
- Changes in bowel habits
- Blood in the stool, or on the surface of the stool
- Diarrhea, constipation, or feeling as though you can't fully empty your bowels
- Persistent abdominal pain, aches, or cramping.
- Unexplained weight loss
- Weakness or fatigue
In some cases, when symptoms aren’t apparent, the first sign of colorectal cancer may be a blood test showing anemia, or a low red blood cell count, due to loss of blood, even if a person’s stool looks normal.
Because colorectal cancer diagnoses are also on the rise in younger populations—diagnoses of advanced-stage colorectal cancer in people under 55 doubled from 11% in 1995 to 20% in 2019—researchers have also identified certain “red flag” symptoms that may be indicative of early-onset colorectal cancer. Those include:
- Abdominal pain
- Rectal bleeding
- Iron deficiency anemia
Although many symptoms associated with colorectal cancer are common among other gastrointestinal issues—including hemorrhoids, infections, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), physicians say it’s still necessary to get any worrisome symptoms checked out to determine the cause and get treated as soon as possible—even in younger populations.
“We should be alert that even young patients with persistent symptoms might have cancer,” said Dr. Biachi. “Nowadays, 15 to 20% of our patients with colorectal cancer are younger than 50.”